Category Archives: Engaging the World

2013 – CEDAR Occasional Paper No. 6, by Lauren R. Kerby

Pluralism versus Tolerance: Turning Principles into Action in Interfaith Organizations

Lauren R. Kerby

In contemporary discussions of how societies manage religious diversity, two strategies are often juxtaposed: pluralism and tolerance. Both are attitudes that shape the kind of interaction between different religious groups in such a way that peace and social order are maintained. However, among liberals in the West, “pluralism” has a distinctly different valence from “tolerance.” Whereas pluralism is viewed positively, as the pinnacle of achievement for a religiously diverse society, tolerance is viewed negatively, as the bare minimum of what is required to maintain peace in such a society. In this view, tolerance is only a stepping-stone on the way to the ultimate goal, pluralism. Despite this popular understanding that pluralism is the superior option, the distinctions between the two terms are not always clear. But the differences are well worth our attention if we hope to understand the very different ways in which tolerance and pluralism operate in the world.

This paper articulates the difference between pluralism and tolerance through an analysis of two nonprofit organizations dedicated to creating and maintaining peace in a religiously diverse world. The first, Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), takes an approach to religion and religious differences based on pluralism. The second, CEDAR—Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion,[1] bases its approach on tolerance. A comparison of the organizations’ methods and outcomes demonstrates that we are not talking about an abstract philosophical distinction whose effects are confined solely to mission statements and annual reports. On the contrary: the basis in pluralism or tolerance, respectively, profoundly shapes the methods and, therefore, the outcomes of each organization’s projects. By comparing pluralism and tolerance in this way—“in action,” so to speak—we can better see the benefits and limitations of each. The key distinction between pluralism and tolerance is the value assigned to difference, which directly impacts the degree to which differences are hidden or revealed within an interfaith program. I argue that because difference is essential to the construction and maintenance of identity, a successful interfaith program will be one that values differences over commonalities, thereby offering the maximum amount of protection for identity in a religiously diverse society. The pluralist approach ultimately privileges commonalities, while the tolerant approach privileges difference and protects identity. Thus, despite its negative connotations in the contemporary West, tolerance is a viable strategy for living with religious difference.

Difference, Identity, and Threat

Before turning to concrete interfaith approaches to managing religious difference, a brief discussion of why difference is so important is in order. In short, difference plays an essential role in constructing and maintaining identity. The identity of any group is circumscribed by its boundaries, which are by their nature exclusive; boundaries indicate that what is on one side of the boundary differs from what is on the other side. Boundaries separate Group A from Group B, Group B from Group C, and so on. Without the presence of difference, the boundaries are meaningless, and the distinct identities of each group merge into indistinct homogeneity because there is nothing left to separate them. No group can define its identity without saying how it is different from the surrounding groups. The construction of a group’s identity requires the articulation of both what they are and what they are not. For a religious group, this may mean a first attempt at differentiating orthodoxy from heresy. For instance, the first Christian creeds and canons emerged not out of a spontaneous desire for group identity, but out of a need to systematize Christian doctrines as a means of guarding against the heresies of Arius or the Docetics. Defining orthodoxy was simultaneously a process of defining heresy. Drawing the boundary around early Christian identity required the presence of religious difference in order for early Christian leaders to say both who they were and who they were not.

This need for difference (or deviance) is the point Durkheim makes when he argues that crime is both normal and necessary to social life.[2] Society requires the presence of “deviants” who violate social norms, because by articulating what it means to violate those norms, it articulates the norms themselves.[3] Kai Erikson adds that group members must know something of what exists beyond the boundaries of the group if they are to understand what it means to be within those boundaries.[4] By confronting and punishing deviance, the group “is making a statement about the nature and placement of its boundaries. It is declaring how much variability and diversity can be tolerated within the group before it begins to lose its distinctive shape, its unique identity.”[5] Deviance within the group and difference outside of it are both essential to maintaining group identity. For this reason, identity is threatened when difference is trivialized, ignored, or even erased, as is the case in a pluralist approach to religious diversity.

Yet the role of difference is paradoxical: at the same time that difference is necessary for the articulation of identity, the presence of difference can also be deeply threatening. When Group A and Group B live adjacent to each other but do not intermingle, difference remains an abstract concept. The people on the other side of the boundary are said to have different practices or beliefs, but they are not immediately visible to the members of the other group. In contrast, when members of Group A and Group B are neighbors, living side by side in the same space, the constant, visible presence of difference can be destabilizing. Members of both groups are forced to confront the fact that their way of life is not the only way of life; others may have different rules, practices, values, or beliefs. This can be incredibly destabilizing—at the very least, it is uncomfortable—but modern society is composed largely of such intermingling of groups, and with this shift comes a significant threat to identity. How a given group deals with this threat is the central challenge faced by organizations seeking to mitigate the conflicts caused by the presence of religious diversity.

Backgrounds of IFYC and CEDAR

Both IFYC and CEDAR were founded at the turn of the 21st century, as consciousness of religious diversity grew in America and around the world. They share the goal of meeting the challenges posed by religious diversity with programs based on social scientific theories that teach participants how to deal with the threat a diverse community poses to their own identity.  However, because their underlying principles—pluralism in the case of IFYC, tolerance in the case of CEDAR— differ, beyond these initial similarities their strategies and outcomes bear little resemblance to each other. Both give their participants tools to address the discomfort caused by the presence of religious difference, but they do so in ways fundamentally shaped by their respective philosophical basis in pluralism or tolerance.

IFYC was first imagined by its founders—Eboo Patel, Jeff Pinzino, and Anastasia White—in 1998 during an interfaith conference at Stanford. The three young people realized a need for interfaith outreach that specifically targeted the rising generation of college undergraduates. With support from three leading interreligious organizations, they slowly began to build their organizational infrastructure. In 2002, with the aid of a $35,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, the organization was incorporated as Interfaith Youth Core, with headquarters in Chicago. Over the next few years the group’s work gained national and international attention.[6] In 2005 IFYC partnered with the Clinton Global Initiative, a group dedicated to turning ideas into action. As a result of that partnership, IFYC worked with Queen Rania of Jordan to establish an exchange program for Jordanian and American students. IFYC also partnered with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation in 2007 to train religious leaders as ambassadors for the United Nations Millennium Development goals, particularly the eradication of malaria. Most recently, in 2012, IFYC partnered with the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships to challenge over 270 college campuses to increase interfaith community service.[7] To date, IFYC has operated on five continents to train thousands of young interfaith leaders, including those on over 200 college campuses in the United States.[8] In addition, Eboo Patel’s memoir, Acts of Faith, which details the founding and philosophy of IFYC, has been required reading for freshmen at over a dozen colleges.

The main focus of IFYC in 2013 remains the training of undergraduate students to lead interfaith activities on their home campuses. Several times a year, students, faculty, and administrators from colleges across the nation gather in major American cities for Interfaith Leadership Institutes (ILIs). Students are trained to “build relationships across identities, tell powerful stories to bridge divides, and mobilize their campuses through interfaith projects.” Faculty and administrators “network, share best practices, and partner with their students to learn how to transform their campuses.”[9] Both students and faculty learn about IFYC’s “Better Together” movement and how they can implement it at their own colleges or universities. “Better Together” is a flexible slogan that can be applied to nearly any campus event that fits three requirements: students are encouraged to “voice their religious/non-religious values, identities, and experiences; engage in conversations about those values, etc., across lines of difference; and act together based on the values they share to improve their campus and their community.”[10] These activities range from food drives to concerts, fast-a-thons to interreligious speed talking. At the ILIs, students are trained to be grassroots organizers of the interfaith movement and given the skills they need to coordinate Better Together activities on their campuses. They also learn about the other religious and nonreligious perspectives of their peers at the ILI and on campus.

The underlying philosophy of IFYC is pluralism, a concept that informs both its mission and its methodology. IFYC, following Harvard scholar Diana Eck, defines pluralism as a positive attitude toward religious diversity that requires “the active engagement of diversity toward a common end.” Whereas “diversity” merely describes a fact of modern life, “pluralism” indicates a particular orientation toward that diversity.[11] A religiously plural world, according to IFYC, is one characterized by “respect for people’s diverse religious and non-religious identities”; “mutually inspiring relationships between people of different backgrounds”; and “common action for the common good.”[12] All of the activities and campaigns of IFYC are designed to foster this pluralist attitude in students, so that they come to understand diversity not just as a fact but as a good. The problem of discomfort caused by religious diversity is resolved by teaching students to understand diversity as positive. IFYC leaders Eboo Patel and Cassie Meyer dismiss tolerance, in contrast, as merely “superficial,” a tool that “may or may not be able to stand the challenge of real tension.”[13] Like many activists in the world of interreligious dialogue, they see tolerance as a weak alternative to pluralism, and they refuse to settle for this lesser option. Everything IFYC does is designed to foster attitudes and behaviors that treat difference as a positive thing, a fact of life that is to be embraced, not avoided.

Like IFYC, CEDAR recognizes the inevitable fact of religious diversity and offers strategies for dealing with it, though its attitude to the inherent value of difference itself is far more ambivalent. The idea for CEDAR was first conceived in 2001 as an international summer school, when a group of friends met in a restaurant in Sarajevo and discussed how religion might be an asset in “building a more tolerant and pluralistic world.” The inaugural summer school was held in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia in 2003, focusing on the role of religion in the conflicts of former Yugoslavia.[14] In subsequent years the school was held in a variety of other locations around the world—including Israel, Cyprus, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Indonesia—on a wide range of topics, from the “Muslim question” in Europe to religious syncretism in traditional Bulgarian societies.[15] After 10 years of summer schools using this model, CEDAR’s mission expanded to the point where organizational changes became necessary. In addition to adopting its new name,[16] it moved from holding a single annual summer school in changing locations to establishing several more permanent programs in various countries with CEDAR support. These include the Balkan Summer School on Religion and Public Life in Plovdiv, Bulgaria; the Connaught Summer Institute on Islamic Studies in Toronto, Canada; the Equator Peace Academy in the Great Lakes Region of Africa; and future programs planned for southern Africa and central Asia. Each of these programs utilizes the pedagogic principles developed by CEDAR to help participants engage with various forms of difference and develop tolerant behaviors and attitudes.

The primary model CEDAR uses is a two-week summer school—hosted by a local collaborating partner, usually a university—that draws participants (fellows) and lecturers from around the world representing a broad range of religious and nonreligious backgrounds. Over the course of the two weeks, fellows participate in an intensive combination of lectures, site visits, and discussions, as well as meals, films, and informal recreational activities. Through these activities, fellows learn not only cognitively, but also experientially and affectively. These three dimensions of new knowledge help to overturn fellows’ assumptions about self, other, and the interactions between the two.[17] The liminal space of the summer school functions as a sort of laboratory in which to practice living with difference, and fellows learn to do so during their informal, quotidian interactions as much as in formal lectures or discussions. In recent years, the school has expanded its focus from solely religious differences; it now includes differences in ethnicity, culture, sexuality, and gender, since these, too, are essential aspects of many people’s group identities. All of these differences emerge in one way or another during the summer school, and fellows must improvise solutions for how they will live together in spite of them. Fellows are not required in any way to accept, validate, or otherwise support the differences of their peers. What they must do, though, is learn how to live with those differences for the duration of the school.[18]

“Living with difference,” CEDAR’s catchphrase, in effect indicates the premise on which the entire enterprise is based: tolerance. Unlike IFYC, with its ambitious goal of teaching people to value diversity, CEDAR’s more modest goal is simply to teach people that they can—and in many cases, must—live together differently. In CEDAR’s view tolerance is not “superficial” and insufficient, but profoundly difficult yet essential to life in a religiously diverse society. Many interfaith organizations, including IFYC, ultimately focus most of their attention on commonalities between religious groups while paying lip service to the differences that divide them. In contrast, CEDAR begins with the understanding that differences are essential and inevitable: “Our focus is on difference and seeks not to trivialize, privatize, or otherwise ‘overcome’ difference, but rather to accept the constitutive differences among human individuals and groups and from that baseline begin the hard work of learning to live with such differences and build a modicum of trust and solidarity despite these differences and all they imply.”[19] Fellows are not encouraged to see diversity as a good or bad thing, but rather as an unavoidable fact of life. They may be made to feel uncomfortable as a result of this difference, but they learn—cognitively, experientially, and affectively—that they can live with this discomfort. In fact, they may not be able to avoid discomfort without giving up fundamental religious commitments to exclusive truth claims. IFYC’s pluralism demands that diversity be viewed in a positive light; CEDAR demands only that the discomfort that accompanies diversity be tolerated.

Approaches to Difference

As a result of their respective foundations in pluralism and tolerance, IFYC and CEDAR’s strategies for engaging difference (or not) through their programs stand in stark contrast to each other. IFYC makes a point of acknowledging that religious differences do exist, unlike many other interfaith programs, which emphasize that differences are merely superficial distortions of core commonalities. However,  its programs are designed to hide religious differences in subtle ways so as to make it easier in the end to subordinate them to a shared liberal, pluralist worldview. CEDAR, on the other hand, makes religious (and other forms of) differences the focal point of its program; if commonalities are ever acknowledged, it is only implicitly or privately, in conversations among the fellows. These divergent approaches to difference shape every aspect of the two programs: the selection of participants, the discussion or reflection topics, the design of activities and choice of spaces in which they take place, and the rules that govern participants’ behavior.

A first important point of comparison between the two programs is what kind of community each builds. In the case of IFYC, the communities involved in various Better Together and other campaigns are for the most part pre-existing. Because IFYC focuses on college students, the community is already there: the college campus. Many smaller communities may come together from across campus to participate in a Better Together event, but all the participants share a significant marker as students at the same college. Moreover, despite colleges’ efforts to increase diversity, students have several important things in common. They have the financial means to attend college; they share the same level of education; and, most important, they already live together, sharing academic and social facilities and other components of college life. They may differ in many important ways, but their similarities are what brought them together in the first place and remain what structures their lives together. They are already a community with a shared social world that easily subordinates difference to what they have in common, at least on the surface.

The CEDAR community, in contrast, is temporary, existing for the first time on the first day of the program. Some participants may be acquainted with each other prior to their arrival, but most are not. Some may share native languages, but rarely with more than one other person. Since the summer school provides a limited number of scholarships and travel assistance for fellows, they may not have similar financial means. And they do not share religious commitments, since they represent a wide range of religious and nonreligious affiliations. What they do share, typically, are two things: a college-level or higher education and a sufficiently strong interest in religion and public life to travel across the globe to study it. From this base, a community of approximately 25 fellows is built. For two weeks they must live together, eat every meal together, and attend all summer school activities together. By virtue of this structure, their similarities and differences are initially given equal weight; there is no overarching shared community to mask differences.

Once the respective programs have started, both IFYC and CEDAR have the opportunity to highlight either sameness or difference through discussions, reflections, and stories that participants tell one another. Both choose to highlight difference, though to different degrees. For IFYC, one of the core requirements for a Better Together event is that students articulate their religious or nonreligious identities and values; presumably, this is where differences along religious lines would first arise, temporarily disrupting the sense of homogeneity among a group of students from the same college.[20] However, articulating these different identities is only the starting point. Subsequent activities and conversations work to smooth over this disruption, reinstating the sense of sameness in spite of expressed differences. Suggested questions and topics for interfaith discussions include the following: “What values do you think you share with people of other religious and non-religious identities? Share an experience where you saw these shared values in action. How does the civil rights movement exemplify interfaith co­operation? How do you think interfaith cooperation affected the impact of the civil rights movement? How does it connect to our work today?”[21] Students are expected to discuss their different identities, beliefs, experiences, and values; but the implicit norm is eventually to find points of commonality amidst the differences. This is a necessity in a group dedicated to taking common action for the common good. Religious differences can be expressed, but they are expected not to diverge too far from values upon which all students can agree and therefore act. The discomfort that arises from articulating differences is quickly alleviated by a return to homogeneity: everyone can agree on raising money for a soup kitchen or building a house for a homeless family. Differences may be expressed, but they are subordinated to commonalities.

CEDAR has no such normative approach toward common values and experiences. If anything, its norm is to bring difference to the surface and keep it there, despite the discomfort it typically causes for everyone involved. When fellows first meet, their natural inclination is to focus on things they have in common in their introductory conversations. Rarely do people meet a stranger and immediately begin listing the ways in which they are different. However, all of the discussions, lectures, and facilitations of the summer school are designed to disrupt any complacent sense of sameness that may develop. When I participated in the Balkan Summer School in 2013, not once were we asked to reflect on something we shared with the other fellows or other communities; every topic was designed to highlight differences and to force fellows to live with the discomfort that comes with being conscious of differences. Nor was this awareness of difference limited to our structured events: even in our informal activities—including meals, swimming, and conversations over drinks—we became more conscious of how religious differences manifest themselves in everyday life. Many fellows were fascinated by kosher laws, and mealtime conversation frequently involved this topic. Swimming breaks also highlighted our differences, perhaps unexpectedly, when one Muslim woman was unable to participate because of modesty requirements. Points of difference that might previously have gone unnoticed became inescapable, both because we were taught to look for them and because we were living together and sharing all of our daily activities.

IFYC’s and CEDAR’s approaches to difference shape more than just overt discussions about religion; they also shape the activities undertaken by participants, beginning with the type of space in which communal activities take place. Generally speaking, both groups conduct activities in two types of space: public space and private space. Public space is the overlapping space shared by all religious communities (or other communities of difference). It may include dining halls, city parks, arenas, classrooms, and so on. Private space, in contrast, is the space reserved for the use of a particular group separately from other groups. Most important, private space includes sacred space, the space in which religious rituals occur. The degree to which an interreligious group conducts its activities in private or sacred space is indicative of its attitude toward difference. Entering another group’s sacred space is a palpable experience of difference. Everything, from the architecture to the symbols to the rituals, is a reminder that this group is not one’s own. If sacred spaces feature frequently in an interfaith program, the participants experience difference as a focal point of the program. If most of the spaces used in an interfaith program are public, with only occasional entry into sacred spaces, the program is more interested in what it can accomplish in public, shared space than in addressing the discomfort that comes with unfamiliar sacred space.

Both IFYC and CEDAR use both types of space: public and private/sacred. However, CEDAR uses a higher percentage of sacred space than IFYC does. During the two weeks of the summer school, CEDAR fellows visit some form of religious site nearly every day; the experience of different sacred spaces is an integral part of CEDAR’s strategy of pushing fellows to confront difference. By this repeated exposure to a variety of differences, fellows learn not to erase their discomfort, but to live with it. For IFYC participants, sacred space is also important, but campus-wide events are rarely held in a sacred space. Small groups may visit a variety of houses of worship and be encouraged to appreciate the differences they observe, but different religious spaces are not usually the focal point of Better Together events. Rather, these events are typically held in public spaces that can hold more people and are less disconcertingly different. They accomplish many things, such as building relationships between people of different faiths and supporting a variety of social justice causes; but the focus is not on difference itself. Space is a key factor in determining to what degree difference will be experienced and how it will be evaluated.

The tendency toward using public rather than private/sacred space, or vice versa, also impacts the types of activities that comprise the interfaith program and the lessons participants learn about difference. IFYC activities that occur in public space may be ordinary activities like meals, but more often they are extraordinary actions such as fasts, house building, concerts, and so on. These actions are usually one-time (or perhaps annual) events that bring students of many different religious and nonreligious backgrounds together for a brief time and then send them on their way. Being together despite differences is an exceptional occurrence. Ideally, students’ awareness of religious differences is raised, but there is no compulsion for students to continue to engage difference as they go through their daily lives. The exception to this may be the leaders of any IFYC-affiliated group on campus. Student leaders planning and executing events will have much more sustained contact with one another than regular participants, and IFYC encourages groups to have a diverse student leadership. The main effect, however, is that students who participate in a Better Together event experience difference temporarily in an out-of-the-ordinary way; while they may take away an improved cognitive understanding of difference, their actual experience of difference is limited to a brief, extraordinary moment.

CEDAR’s preference for private/sacred space has the opposite effect on fellows’ experience of difference. Far from being out of the ordinary, the experience of difference is the norm, and fellows encounter it in all aspects of everyday life during the summer school. This includes experiencing difference within sacred spaces. Fellows are required to attend all summer school activities, including visits to religious sites that are not their own. Instead of participating in extraordinary activities like building a house, summer school fellows observe one another’s daily rituals, both religious and nonreligious. Unlike IFYC participants, CEDAR fellows experience difference in a way not limited to discrete events once or twice in a semester; theirs is a sustained encounter for the duration of the summer school. These two ways of experiencing difference, the extraordinary and the ordinary, have profoundly different implications for how participants expect/view difference in their subsequent lives. Students in IFYC programs may view difference as something that can be temporarily engaged toward a positive end, while CEDAR fellows are more likely to see it as an everyday fact with which they must live constantly and permanently.

The Problem of Proselytism

While all of the programming choices made by IFYC and CEDAR reflect their respective commitments to pluralism and tolerance, the impact of these choices is subtle. They implicitly shape how participants encounter difference during the interfaith program, but they are rarely, if ever, stated explicitly during the program. There is, however, one area in which pluralist or tolerant philosophies are forced to the surface: the rules governing dialogue or exchanges between participants. Both programs acknowledge that participants’ religious identities may center on exclusive truth claims that put those identities at odds with others. If those identities are to be expressed in a constructive way, the interfaith program must have clear guidelines for how this should be done. Creating those guidelines requires an explicit articulation of the program’s philosophy regarding religious difference, the degree to which it can be expressed, and to what end it can be engaged.

During interfaith dialogues in IFYC, participants are encouraged to “bring their full identities to the table.”[22] For those whose religious identities are sufficiently liberal that they do not feel challenged by the presence of others with diametrically opposed identities, this is relatively easy. For those on the more conservative end of their tradition’s spectrum, though, this sort of encounter can be extremely difficult. Some interfaith organizations ask their participants to deny their exclusive truth claims during dialogues, to assert that their own religion is not the only way. Patel rightly criticizes this approach for attracting only the most liberal members of most religions and effectively excluding the more conservative members from the conversation altogether.[23] To avoid this problem, IFYC emphasizes that one component of Eck’s definition of pluralism—“respect for individual religious or non-religious identity”—requires that participants be “allowed to believe that they are right and others are wrong.”[24] More important, they are allowed to express their “full identity,” meaning an identity with its exclusive truth claims intact. IFYC repeatedly states in its literature that interfaith dialogue “should not deny the real differences and disagreements that exist between religious and non-religious perspectives, nor should it diminish the reality that exclusive truths play in many religious differences.”[25] However, what happens once that exclusivist identity is expressed is key to understanding IFYC’s pluralist approach.

As Patel and Meyer put it, when dealing with exclusive truth claims in interfaith dialogue, “there need to be rules for how this conversation can play out.”[26] Simply put, the rule is that proselytism is prohibited: “Although proselytizing is an important part of many religious traditions, [interfaith dialogue] is not the space for it.”[27] Participants are asked to “acknowledge that others’ religious or non-religious perspectives are as precious to them as yours is to you” and thus to refrain from attempting to convert their dialogue partners. Instead, after this expression of participants’ “full identities,” the conversation is channeled away from proselytism and toward common values. This dialogue structure both reveals difference and subsequently hides it, for there is a clear limit to the amount of difference that can be expressed, and even at its most extreme, difference is still subordinated to commonality. This is the epitome of the pluralist approach: difference is positive, but only insofar as it can be made to serve a common purpose. When difference is expressed to such a degree that it threatens to be divisive—for example, proselytism—it must be suppressed.

CEDAR also has rules governing participants’ conversations, but they do not include a prohibition against proselytism. The summer school has only two absolute requirements: (1) fellows must attend every event, and (2) they cannot claim for their own community a monopoly on human suffering. In other words, everyone is expected to be a present and participating member of the summer school community, and to allow space for their peers to express their own experiences without denying the legitimacy or significance of those experiences. However, nowhere is proselytism expressly prohibited. To be sure, the implicit norm of the summer school was to avoid overt proselytism; as in most interfaith programs, proselytism is considered at the very least impolite. But to attempt to convert another fellow would not be against the rules. If anything, such an event would draw attention to how significant our religious differences are and how profoundly destabilizing it is to realize that we do not agree about what is true. CEDAR does not cut off the expression of difference when it threatens to be divisive, even when it veers into proselytism. Recognizing that extreme degree of difference and yet continuing to live together is the core project of the summer school. If the community of fellows can do that and then still sit down and eat together despite their profound disagreement, they have learned to exercise the sort of tolerance that makes it possible to live in a religiously diverse world, even without necessarily valuing diversity as a good thing.

The central challenge posed by religious diversity emerges in this confrontation between exclusive truth claims and, through it, the primary difference between pluralism and tolerance when they are put into action. Both organizations acknowledge that religious differences exist— but what to do with them? IFYC’s pluralist approach encourages passive expressions of difference, but any action taken must be an expression of “common values for the common good.” Proselytism is off limits precisely because diversity is understood to be a positive thing. After all, if diversity is inherently good, there ought not to be an impulse to eliminate that diversity by converting others to a single Truth. Thus, students can express their own difference, but they cannot try to persuade others to join them. This  prevents any arguments over who is ultimately right, which may allow participants to build houses together; but it also has the effect of privatizing religious difference, of making it something off limits for debate. Respect becomes a code word for silence. Moreover, when these differences are constrained to allow commonalities to remain the focus of both attention and action, differences are trivialized. Lip service is paid to their importance as individuals express their own religious identities; but that which has real value for pluralists remains that which is held in common.

As an organization founded on the principle of tolerance, CEDAR has no such compunction to promote diversity as something to be protected by prohibiting anything that might threaten it, including proselytism. The summer school’s goal is to make fellows aware of their differences and the significance of those differences—and to give them space to learn how to live together anyway. They are taught to exercise not pluralism but tolerance, which by its very definition recognizes that diversity is not the preferred option. Tolerance allows religious identities to be expressed fully, even to the point of expressing discomfort with diversity. However, what the summer school also teaches is that diversity is an inescapable fact of life. Fellows must find their own strategies for dealing with their discomfort. Those strategies can include anything except avoiding the source of discomfort by failing to attend scheduled activities. Difference in this way is not trivialized, but rather understood to be concomitant with identity. It cannot be subordinated to commonality without compromising identity. From this point of view, difference is inherently neither good nor bad, only disconcerting; and its expression cannot be constrained by rules prohibiting any actions that threaten a positive valuation of difference.

Conclusions

From this comparison of pluralism and tolerance in action, we can draw the following conclusions. First, we learn that a core distinction between pluralism and tolerance is the decision to view religious diversity as a positive thing or as simply an inescapable fact. This distinction influences programming choices in interfaith organizations, determining how differences and commonalities are presented and valued in relation to each other. In a pluralist approach such as that of IFYC, difference is to some degree peripheral and privatized, while the real action occurs in shared space doing shared activities. Commonality is consistently emphasized over difference. In a tolerant approach such as that of CEDAR, the reverse is true. Difference is central, and it features prominently in the cognitive, experiential, and affective dimensions of learning. The things we have in common with other humans are as peripheral to the summer school experience as the 50 percent of our DNA that we share with a banana.[28] The construction of activities, the locations, and above all the rules governing participants’ behavior are all dependent on whether the program’s underlying philosophy is pluralism or tolerance.

This in turn shapes how participants in the interfaith program understand and engage with difference as they return to their daily lives. Do they see encounters with diversity as something out of the ordinary, something rare but with a positive impact? Or do they see diversity as an ordinary feature of everyday life, which can be engaged either positively or negatively but cannot be ignored? What value do participants assign to differences, as opposed to commonalities, when they encounter someone from another religion in their lives? Does difference or commonality take precedence? The goal of the programs is to give participants the tools to navigate the diversity of their own communities, and the pluralist toolbox looks quite different from the tolerance toolbox. Which one is more effective depends heavily on the context in which it is used. In an environment where religious differences can easily—and temporarily—be subordinated to commonalities, IFYC’s pluralist approach is viable. In an environment where religion is a defining feature of multiple groups’ identities, however, religious difference may not be so easily hidden away as valuable but ultimately irrelevant to public life. CEDAR’s tolerant approach allows fellows to recognize the significance of religious (and other forms of) differences in both public and private life, and to practice living with diversity even if it makes them uncomfortable.

Put simply, a college campus is not Bosnia; the strategies that work for students at the University of Illinois will not directly translate to a neighborhood in Sarajevo. The pluralist toolbox takes for granted that those involved value diversity as an inherent good, which may not always be the case. Yet when such a position is the case, tolerance alone may miss opportunities for constructive action across lines of difference that a pluralist approach would provide. Both approaches, in short, can be effective if they are implemented in the appropriate contexts. What the pluralist approach misses, though, is that diversity is rarely seen as an inherent good. In reality, diversity is more often seen as a threat, precisely because of the danger it poses to group identity.

There is, then, an evangelistic component to the pluralist approach, the success of which directly impacts the effectiveness of any pluralist interfaith enterprise. Those involved must first be convinced that diversity is—or at least can be—a good thing. “Better Together” is not a descriptive statement, but an argument IFYC continually makes through its activities. In its literature, IFYC claims that its notion of pluralism is sociological, not theological; that is, diversity can be understood as socially positive even if it is still seen as theologically negative. In reality, the two are not so easily separated. The move to separate theological pluralism from sociological pluralism is akin to permitting the expression of difference but prohibiting any kind of proselytism: the result is that sincere theological reservations about difference are privatized, and a homogeneous “sociological” point of view regarding difference is imposed publicly. Tolerance does not make this sort of demand, and it is this feature of tolerance that makes it an option worth pursuing as a strategy for maintaining peace in religiously diverse communities. It is not a bad thing for pluralists to plead their case that diversity is positive, but they should never take it for granted that others will agree. Pluralism is the preferred option only if we truly believe that we can create a consensus that diversity is good. However, if we recognize that differences essential to identity and diversity have as much potential to be threatening as to be positive, we may be better off pursuing tolerance, accepting diversity as simply a fact of life that will elicit a wide range of responses. Demanding a positive evaluation of difference can be asking too much; simply recognizing that difference exists may enable us to live together.

Author Bio

Lauren R. Kerby, a 2013 BSSRPL Fellow, is a third-year PhD student at Boston University where she studies contemporary American religion and society.

Bibliography

CEDAR—Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion: www.cedarnetwork.org.

Durkheim, Emile. Rules of Sociological Method, ed. Steven Lukes. New York: The Free Press, 1933/1982.

Erikson, Kai. Wayward Puritans: A Study in the Sociology of Deviance. Needham Heights, MA: Macmillan, 1966.

Interfaith Youth Core: www.ifyc.org.

McKim, Robert. “Responding to Religious Diversity: Some Possible Directions for the Interfaith Youth Core.” Journal of College & Character 11:1 (February 2010): 1–8.

Patel, Eboo. Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Soul of a Generation. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007.

Patel, Eboo, and Cassie Meyer. “The Civic Relevance of Interfaith Cooperation for Colleges and Universities.” Journal of College & Character 12:1 (February 2011): 1–9.

Patel, Eboo, and Cassie Meyer. “Defining Religious Pluralism: A Response to Professor Robert McKim.” Journal of College & Character 11:2 (May 2010): 1–4.

Patel, Eboo, and Cassie Meyer. “Engaging Religious Diversity on Campus: The Role of Interfaith Leadership.” Journal of College & Character 10:7 (November 2009): 1–8.

Seligman, Adam. “Tolerance, Tradition, and Modernity.” Cardozo Law Review 24 (2002): 1645–1657.

Seligman, Adam. “Living Together Differently.” Cardozo Law Review 30 (2008): 2881–2897.

Notes

[1] CEDAR was originally established in 2003 as the International Summer School for Religion and Public Life (ISSRPL) and operated under that name until 2013.

[2] Emile Durkheim, Rules of Sociological Method, ed. Steven Lukes (New York: The Free Press, 1933/1982), 97–104.

[3] And, in some cases, those norms can change as a result of deviance. See Durkheim, 101–02.

[4] Kai Erikson, Wayward Puritans: A Study in the Sociology of Deviance (Needham Heights, MA: Macmillan, 1966), 10.

[5] Erikson, 11.

[6] “Center Profile: Interfaith Youth Core,” The Pluralism Project, http://www.pluralism.org/profiles/view/75013.

[7] “IFYC Overview,” About Interfaith Youth Core, http://www.ifyc.org/about-ifyc.

[8] “IFYC Overview.”

[9] “Interfaith Leadership Institutes,” Interfaith Youth Core, http://www.ifyc.org/leadership-institutes.

[10] “Quick Start Toolkit,” Interfaith Youth Core, http://www.ifyc.org/sites/default/files/u4/Quick%20start%20Toolkit%202013.pdf.

[11] Eboo Patel and Cassie Meyer, “The Civic Relevance of Interfaith Cooperation for Colleges and Universities,” Journal of College & Character 12:1 (February 2011): 2.

[12] “The Framework,” Interfaith Youth Core, http://www.ifyc.org/about; see also Patel and Meyer, “Civic Relevance of Interfaith Cooperation,” 2.

[13] Patel and Meyer, “Civic Relevance of Interfaith Cooperation,” 2.

[14] “CEDAR: Our Story,” CEDAR—Communities Engaging in Difference and Religion, http://www.cedarnetwork.org/about- us/our-story/.

[15] “CEDAR: Past Programs,” CEDAR—Communities Engaging in Difference and Religion, http://www.cedarnetwork.org/programs/past-programs/.

[16] “The International Summer School on Religion and Public Life Changes Its Name,” CEDAR—Communities Engaging in Difference and Religion, http://www.cedarnetwork.org/2013/07/28/the-international-summer-school-on-religion-and-public-life-changes-name.

[17] “Pedagogic Principles,” CEDAR—Communities Engaging Difference and Religion, http://www.cedarnetwork.org/about-us/pedagogic-principles/.

[18] “Pedagogic Principles.” In this paper, I also draw on my own experience as a fellow in the Balkan Summer School in 2013.

[19] “How We Work,” CEDAR—Communities Engaging Difference and Religion, http://www.cedarnetwork.org/about-us/how-we-work/.

[20] Information on IFYC’s programming is taken from a variety of resources available at www.ifyc.org/better-together, especially the “Quick Start Toolkit,” as well as from informal conversations with IFYC alumni.

[21] “Making It Interfaith,” Interfaith Youth Core, http://www.ifyc.org/teaching-interfaith.

[22] Eboo Patel and Cassie Meyer, “Defining Religious Pluralism: A Response to Professor Robert McKim,” Journal of College & Character 11:2 (May 2010): 2.

[23] Patel and Meyer, “Defining Religious Pluralism,” 2.

[24] Patel and Meyer, “Defining Religious Pluralism,” 2.

[25] “Making It Interfaith,” Interfaith Youth Core: Tools for Campus Impact, http://www.ifyc.org/teaching-interfaith.  See especially the footnote on pg. 5.

[26] Patel and Meyer, “Defining Religious Pluralism,” 2.

[27] Patel and Meyer, “Defining Religious Pluralism,” 1.

[28] Thanks to Adam Seligman of CEDAR for this striking metaphor.

How come a self-proclaimed progressive Jew sides with halal meat?, by Rahel Wasserfall

Last week, by chance, I watched a video from the site AKADEM, the French cultural site on all things Jewish (November 20, 2013). Claude Askolovitch, a self-identified progressive Jewish journalist, explained that he was let go from his job as a journalist at Le Point because of an article he wrote defending halal slaughter in France. I was intrigued and continued watching. On the video, he mused about the causes of hatred toward Muslims in contemporary France and asked why both the Front National, a right wing anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic political party, and the Socialists have difficult relations with French Muslims. He then presented the story of how the Front National has been taken seriously and has, in his words, become “the thinking norm.”

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National, started a polemic about halal meat two years ago. She claimed that 45 percent of the meat eaten in France is halal and that halal slaughtering is inhumane. She also asserted that the French are eating it unknowingly and that it is unhealthy for the French population as a whole. Her outrageous statements culminated in a wild pseudo-scientific scenario in which the contents of a dead animal’s stomach are spewed onto the meat while the throat of the animal is ritually cut. This ritual way of slaughtering would pour the stomach bacteria over the meat and render it pathogenic.

This strong, vivid image made me think of my parents whispering that Arabs tend to kill their enemies by cutting their throats. When I was a child in Paris during the most difficult months of the OAS[i] retaliation in the city, an Algerian man was assassinated below my apartment. I can still see in my mind’s eye the chalk contour of his body form on the pavement when I went to school the next morning. The image of cutting someone’s throat was seared into my childhood as the “Arab way of killing.”

Is there something reminiscent of this primal fear in the antipathy to halal slaughtering? Is slaughtering an animal by cutting its throat somehow symbolically linked to the fear of being a human victim of that knife? Madame le Pen has also asserted that Muslims effectively reject the “real French,” as they believe that halal meat touched by a non-Muslim becomes non-halal, and thus no longer edible by a Muslim.  The news media erupted after her claims, explained Askolovitch, and many publications reproduced them without checking their veracity.

Askolovitch, a journalist, did exactly that; he researched the facts and proved that these stories reported all over the media were completely erroneous.[ii] The percentage of animals slaughtered in Ile de France was no more than 2 percent. Furthermore, there is certainly no scientific evidence that the meat is unhealthy because of the way the animals are slaughtered. Le Pen’s claim that halal meat is rendered non-halal by virtue of being touched by a non-Muslim is simply hate mongering.

In her claims regarding halal, Le Pen points to what she thinks is the main problem with the Muslims: they separate themselves, eat differently, and do not drink as the French do. France is not the only place in Europe where halal and kosher slaughter are under attack as inhumane, because stunning the animal prior to ritual slaughter is unacceptable to Muslims and Jews who eat halal and kosher.

Askolovitch develops a thesis surrounding the problem of secularity in France and the inability to include religious others into the Republique. He begins by telling his audience that Alain Finkelkraut, the French Jewish philosopher, just observed that he is not really completely French and the only “real” French are the “Francais de souche.” The word souche (lit: root) has connotations of ancestry and land, which takes us back to 19th-century nationalism and blood.

As I was listening to this story, I was reminded of my own adolescent feelings that as a Jew I would never “really” belong to France. I loved the Republique, but she did do not love me back! I left France to find my place in a Jewish land and then, as many Jews before me, in the goldene medinah,[iii] the United States. I am still longing for what could have been, if I had felt loved by the Republique of my childhood. Does the Republique today behave toward its Muslims as it did to its Jews?

Rahel Wasserfall is Director of Evaluation and Training at CEDAR and resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.


[i] The OAS (organization de l’ armée secrete) was a counterterrorist part of the French army that refused to let go of Algeria, they were active from 1954 to 1962. Its motto was “L’Algérie est francaise et le restera” Algeria is French and will remain so.

[ii] Claude Askolovitch, Nos mals-aimes: Ces musulmans dont la France ne veut pas. September 2013, Editions Grasset.

[iii]Yiddish; literally the “golden country.”

Musings on diversity from Vienna, Sarajevo, and New York, by Maja Šoštarić

On a sunny morning in August 2013, as I exited the peaceful Parc des Bastions in Geneva, Switzerland and passed by the oversized chess figures near the park gate, I was astonished to see some familiar faces, a real blast from the past, on coming out into Place de Neuve. There they were again: four bronze sculptures by the contemporary German artist Thomas Schütte, entitled Vier große Geister. I had seen them before in 2011, earlier in their tour of European cities, on Vienna’s Graben Street. One is pointing to the skies; another looks defiant, with arms crossed; the third is stretching his arms combatively; and the fourth looks as if he is preparing to embrace someone. What do these four figures really represent? Faith, pride, persistence and hospitality? Or perhaps fundamentalism, segregation, fighting, and indoctrination?

FoD 1 b sostaric photos 3 - cropThe original German title of the sculptures can mean both Four large ghosts and Four great spirits. This ambiguity is probably intentional, as the odd foursome can be interpreted either as terrifying, voracious manifestations of one’s own past coming for its prey, or as dignified, lofty symbols of civilization and humanity. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. Be it as it may, the majority of observers will probably be captivated by something inherently paradoxical: the static dynamism and motionless interaction of the figures.

Back in 2011, while walking past the Vier große Geister in Vienna in the midst of the crowded Graben, replete with tourists, occasional horse carriages, and one very persistent cello player, I caught myself thinking, “Are these four sculptures in some sort of conflict? Or are they independent of each other?” And then, since I always find a way to connect my thoughts with my immediate locations, I concluded that, viewed through my Vienna lens, the four could stand only for faith, pride, persistence and hospitality, and that their interaction could be seen only as togetherness.

Indeed, as I was returning from an eventful soiree with some old friends in Vienna’s 16th district, also popularly known as the Balkanstrasse (Balkan Street), I thought how welcoming this place was toward the citizens of the former Yugoslavia. In Balkanstrasse cafés almost no one speaks German. In the subway or the street, you’re more likely to hear Croatian, Serbian, or Bosnian than German, to the point where you might forget you’re in the Austrian capital. When I was a student here, those of us from the “former state” used to hang out in a large area of the main university aula. But no matter how difficult it was for us—financially, culturally or socially—to adapt to Vienna, all my “ex-Yu” friends and I achieved our goals while respecting Austrian norms and culture and at the same time preserving our respective identities. Many Asians, Mexicans, or Turks in Vienna have embraced a similar lifestyle, in what may be a textbook example of togetherness resulting in diversity.

But Vienna was just a temporary shelter for my restless spirit. When I arrived in Sarajevo more than three years ago, I was handed a city map along with the names of the most important sights. Only several weeks after my arrival, having walked the webs of narrow streets and climbed all the neighboring hills, did I discover a still widely unknown Old Town souvenir: the Sarajevo cube. I stumbled upon it in the tiny streets of the central Baščaršija neighborhood. A simple wooden cube encapsulates the four symbols of Sarajevo: the Beg mosque, the Roman Catholic cathedral, the Old Synagogue, and the Old Orthodox church. This is also why Sarajevo is sometimes compared to Jerusalem: in a small circle of a few hundred meters, four important religions are represented. Indeed, on my short bike ride from the Old Town to my house, I travel through centuries of continuous religious and ethnic coexistence.

Yet I think coexistence has found its absolute pinnacle in the majestic New York City, where I see myself at some point in the future. Walking down endless Broadway late at night, blinded by the colorful lights of Times Square, I witnessed the city’s burgeoning night life, a sweet tyranny of everything, and an overwhelming power of contrast: luxuriously dressed-up people and half-naked people, dancing people and crawling people, people publicly denouncing religion and people publicly worshiping their gods. The avenue resounded with a Babel of different languages. “So this is what diversity is really all about,” I thought, slightly tired, somewhere amidst all those people. But I was not entirely right. The day after, I visited the impressive 9/11 memorial and the neighboring St. Paul’s Chapel, which hosted numerous volunteers who cleaned up the ruins of the destroyed World Trade Center in the months following the attacks. The church houses dozens of objects, photographs, and prayers recalling that period from throughout the United States and the world. That, in fact, is what diversity is all about.

Vienna by night is not nearly as alive as New York, but there are certain nights when everybody is out and about. One such example is Lange Nacht der Kirchen (Long Night of the Churches). All Christian churches keep their doors open for visitors, whoever they may be. I remember the abundant scent of wax candles in a Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas, and the elevated voice singing an Old Slavic mass in the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church of St. Barbara. Although the Muslim and Jewish communities are (still) not part of the initiative, their believers have expressed great interest in it. Indeed, if they were to participate, Vienna would have much more to offer; its first and second districts contain numerous synagogues, while the 10th, 16th, and 17th districts are replete with mosques and places of Islamic worship.

Given the presence of different religions in Sarajevo, there are also many occasions to celebrate. During the month of Ramadan preceding the Eid-al-Fitr holiday (also known in Bosnia as ramazanski Bajram, the Ramadan Bayram), observant Muslims fast from dawn to sunset. Come sunset, however, it is time to enjoy iftar, an evening feast. Many non-Muslims, myself included, are regularly invited to iftars and blessed by the hospitality of our Muslim friends. The small Jewish community in Sarajevo also prepares celebrations, and I was fortunate enough to attend a seder (festive Passover dinner) with prayers recited in Hebrew, Bosnian, and—interestingly—old Spanish (because the first Jews who came to Sarajevo were expelled from the Iberian peninsula in the 15th century). Likewise, on Christmas Eve, many Muslims and other non-Catholics gather in front of the Sarajevo Cathedral in order to wish their Catholic friends merry Christmas. All this is to say that the above-mentioned four sculptures, as viewed through my Sarajevo lens, are doing nothing less than emanating optimism—in spite of the war and annihilation of the city’s recent history.

New York, too, saw destruction not that long ago. Nevertheless, it is nothing but a splendid, relentless motion, resulting from the interplay of faith, pride, persistence and hospitality. I stayed in the exciting area bordering fancy SoHo on one side and colorful Chinatown and Little Italy on the other. In other words, a typical American cupcake bakery is just minutes away from countless Chinese restaurants or delectable Sicilian specialties— a microcosm of people and opportunities. New York really is “all that jazz.” After having enjoyed the magnificent revival of the Harlem Renaissance in the Apollo Theater, the African Poetry Theatre of Queens, and the Japanese-looking Botanical Garden of Brooklyn, completely by accident I found myself in front of Norman Mailer’s beautiful Brooklyn house. My guidebook quoted a sentence from one of his novels: “I don’t think life is absurd. I think we are all here for a huge purpose. I think we shrink from the immensity of the purpose we are here for.” Considering my second chance encounter with the Four great spirits in Geneva, I could only mumble to myself, “How appropriate, how wonderfully appropriate”.

Maja Šoštarić (2012 ISSRPL) works at the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

2012 – ISSRPL Occasional Paper No. 5, by Maja Šoštarić

Fixing the House: The Challenge of Tolerating the “Other” in Public and in Private

Maja Šoštarić

“Imagine that a rat somehow enters your house. What do you do? Essentially, you have two options. One is to kill the rat. Another one is to fix the house.”
(Indonesian kyai – Islamic scholar, during a visit to a pesantren – an Islamic boarding school)

I have witnessed many an interesting, bizarre, or even tragicomic scene during my two-years work in Bosnia focusing on transitional justice. Coming from neighboring Croatia, I have always found the Bosnian mentality somewhat similar to my own. Yet, the Bosnian sarcastically painted sense of humor is something unique that cannot be found anywhere else in the Balkans. I deem it to be by far the best tool for accurately portraying some truths regarding the country’s perplexing political situation, like that scene from Danis Tanović’s 2001 Oscar-winning movie where a Serb and a Bosniak, trapped in an improvised bunker between the opposing armies, quarrel over who started the war, although they might die under a sniper any minute. But eventually, it’s not the sniper that kills them, but their own haggling.

One real-life scene from my professional life in Bosnia is a case in point. During a public debate, a Bosniak, a Croat, and a Serb shared their deeply moving war stories of hunger, torture, and detention, recognized the suffering of the other sides and talked about reconciliation and coexistence. This was indeed something new for the audience present in a packed room on a chilly winter day. The international community must have been very content, for the “value-for-money” ratio finally looked larger than one.

Yet there is another side to the coin, as there always is. Immediately following the debate, I was fortunate to sit down for a cup of tea with the abovementioned three gentlemen, who were smiling to each other, to me, and to the rest of the world. No surprise, then, that I was enormously taken aback to discover, with the stage lights down and off the record, that these three men did not agree on virtually anything. One of them claimed to have been detained in a camp of which another man was denying the mere existence, and the third man was supporting the argument of the second one. As loyal followers of Balkan movies will have guessed, I left them cursing at each other and yelling, all at the same time. (I only heard, from a safe distance, that it was something about you, us, them.)

Is peacebuilding, therefore, just a colorful circus show, a never-ending performance to make believers of those who choose to believe? Is, by extension, tolerance (and hence intolerance as well) something that is exclusively reserved for the private realm, at least in the Western liberal intellectual tradition?[i]  If that is the case, we are very much facing the rat problem mentioned in the caption. What follows from that argument, then, is that the house should be fixed. The first step to proceed, if we think more about the kyai’s valuable advice quoted in the above epigraph, is to identify the hole through which the rat squeezed in, also allowing for the fact that the problem does not have geographical, cultural or social borders: any society can be seen as a house, and any type of intolerance as a rat.

These thoughts were on my mind as the bus I was traveling on this summer stopped in front of a mosque and a church – not one after another, but in fact, one next to another. In the Yogyakarta province, Indonesia, a mosque and a Protestant church share the same address. I was on the bus full of curious minds from all over the world. The bus has just arrived in front of the church and the mosque in order to obtain an insight into how local Muslims and Christians coexist peacefully. The persons on the bus have all read something about the numerous interreligious clashes and disputes in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, whereby the Muslims and all others also coexist with several Islamic subgroups not associated with or recognized by the majority of Indonesia’s Muslims.[ii]

Moreover, we have all heard stories about the Indonesian constitution that foresees six official religions (Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Confucianism) to one of which everyone has to belong, and where atheists, or those who refuse to declare their religion, are severely punished. But when one is in the country, stories like that are difficult to believe, judging from the smiling faces around every corner. Therefore, one cannot help but wonder whether the Indonesian people, similarly to the Bosnians and pretty much everyone else on the planet, sometimes only perform.

By performing, of course, I do not mean theater as much as life. But the metaphor of performance found applicability while watching with others the Ramayana ballet in Prambanan Temple in central Java. The content and structure of the performance finds parallels in how one makes sense of “fixing the house.” A traditional Javenese ballet, it is based on the prominent epic and performed in four acts, or, as they call it, episodes. But, the reader is now wondering, how does the ballet play out along the public-private debate? Does the message it conveys and the way it is performed tell us something more about tradition, tolerance and violence?  In the first episode, the main hero, Rama’s wife Shinta, is abducted by Rama’s most bitter adversary, Rahwana. In the second episode, Rama, helped by Sugriwa, the ape envoy, is trying to reach Shinta, while in the third episode Rahwana is already waging a war against Rama. Rama kills Rahwana in episode four, and, of course, reunites with Shinta, and they live happily ever after.

So let the story of tolerance in private versus public (in Bosnia, Indonesia, and everywhere else) and about a summer school that has the rare courage to address the issue (in private and in public), be told in four episodes as well, for the author of these lines still naïvely, but passionately, believes in happy endings.

Episode 1: ISSRPL – Locating the Problem

The curious minds hopping off a bus are the participants of the 2012 International Summer School of Religion and Public Life (ISSRPL) held on two Indonesian islands: Java, being the majority Muslim area, and Bali, being populated mainly by Hindus. By bringing together an ethnically and religiously heterogeneous group of participants (28 fellows from 18 countries) to a country that is equally ethnically and religiously mixed, the school organizers aimed to create small “communities of trust,” as the school director, Boston University professor Adam Seligman, puts it.

Generally, the summer school involves approximately 25-30 fellows coming from about 20 different countries. The yearlong discussion on tolerance and living together differently was started in the Balkans, where, as pointed out in the introduction, it is still a very delicate issue. The first ISSRPL was held in 2003 in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Dubrovnik, Croatia, followed by other Balkan-located schools in 2004 (Sarajevo and Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina), 2006 (Stolac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Boston, United States) and 2011 (Sofia and Plovdiv, Bulgaria). The logo of the school is also closely related to the Balkans: it represents a design of the Čaršijska Mosque in Stolac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was destroyed in 1992-93 and reconstructed in 2003.

Through an intense degree of interaction, and combining cognitive (academic) and emotional aspects, the ISSRPL fellows learn about the country they find themselves in, but also about the people with whom they spend the bulk of their time: other participants of the school. Building on the premises that knowledge is collective (social) and that people build real, active communities (something that is deeply anchored in human nature) by doing together.

Unlike most programs in interreligious and interethnic dialogue, the summer school does not stress what we have in common with the other, but accepts and attempts to build precisely on our differences. That is a challenging undertaking, vastly avoided or at least ignored, precisely because difference is the root of every conflict, be it difference in standpoints, provenance, religion, or levels of wealth. Focusing on the root of conflict is, doubtless, the most targeted way to solve it. By the similar token, addressing difference in the context of the contrast-painted societies is probably also the most efficient method of dealing with difference.

Episode 2: Telling Them What They Want to Hear – a Recipe for Tolerance?

Back to the curious minds from the beginning. Similarly to the ape envoy from Ramayana, they are far from listless and drifting. In the next scene, we see them in a Protestant church, holding some pink lunchbox gifts, eating oranges and listening to the pastor. She is telling them how they, the Christians, have absolutely no problems with their Muslim neighbors. And the Muslim neighbors, who invite everyone to the mosque, concur. All is well, thank you for asking. Yogyakarta has been declared, according to some survey, the happiest city in Indonesia. And according to some other survey, Indonesia, the presenters hurry to add, is indeed the happiest place on the planet. Hence, Logical Reasoning 101 suggests: Yogyakarta is the happiest city on Earth! Some of the curious minds are immediately frowning, and we should forgive them, for doubt is the ultimate quality of those being curious. The question that imposes itself is: could it be that this is just an appearance, something similar to the introductory show performed by my three Bosnian peacebuilding friends? The group leaves in a state of doubt.

A Balinese intellectual gives them an opposite perspective, in a lecture held in a heavenly resort with palms, pools and all other predictable requisites of paradise, in Ubud, Bali. “The tourist heaven you see here”, he points out, “is nothing but the way we make our living. In reality, it’s completely different. Look around. See for yourselves.” The group does just that, trying not to be deceived by the fabulous odor of the yellow plumeria flowers which can be found all over the island. And indeed, truth is out there, as the “X Files”, a TV show popular in the 1990s, suggests. At times, it seems that the Balinese identity, with everything offered for sale, has been constructed merely for purposes of the tourist.[iii]

In a Javanese Catholic church, a priest, looking and speaking like a textbook example of Christ’s shepherd, gives a memorable Sunday sermon. Essentially, he speaks about three people: Udin, a journalist of a local newspaper in Yogyakarta who was probably killed by a politician whom he had associated to corruption; Marsinah, a female worker, who was murdered after she had led a mass labor protest against the corporative owner where she worked. The case was closed without any decision by the court; and Munir, a human rights activist who was poisoned on a flight by military secret agents. Udin, Marsinah and Munir are today’s prophets, the priest concludes, for they were ready to suffer in order to make this imperfect world a better place for the rest of us.

The core of the problem lies exactly in the public sphere. The reason why the honest and profound Bosnian reconciliation process so far has not translated from the public to the private, and vice versa, and why some people in Indonesia publically insist on impeccable harmony within society, while human rights violations still occur in suspicious and dodgy corners far away from sun and the sea, is the inability to grasp the very concept of tolerance, whom one should tolerate, and where. Tolerance “involves accepting, and abiding or accommodating views that one rejects. It calls us to live in cognitive dissonance and presents contradiction as a sought after goal. We are obliged to “bear” what in fact we find unbearable.”[iv]

Often times, tolerance is confounded with indifference – an elegant solution that is based on the premise that a realm of privacy is not to be broached at any cost, and that therefore, tolerant or intolerant views should be removed from public discussion. This is where the issue of space becomes pivotal, too. At home, we think what we want to think, and we say what we want to say, because we are free. Outside, in public, we do not really care (What is there to be tolerant about when it comes to Aborigines if I reside in Buenos Aires? Why on Earth do I have to have an opinion on the Tutsi, or even, God forbid, empathize with them, if I live in Montenegro?), or, in the best of cases, we pretend to care while simultaneously acting completely opposite. That, or so we seem to be taught, is the way to achieve world peace and to coexist with the “other”.

Episode 3: Tolerating vs. Confronting the “Other”

Then, again, who is your “other”? The “other” is obviously not a Tutsi from Kigali if you have spent all your life in Podgorica. On the contrary, it is someone who enters your own, private, comfort zone. The “other” is precisely that person claiming to have been detained in a camp that “your” army set up. The “other” is that Christian building a church in the middle of a Muslim neighborhood; the “other” is also a Jew in Bosnia, where he or she cannot actively engage in politics, or a Jewish observant in Indonesia, where he or she cannot tick a box which says “Judaism” on an ID card, for there is no such category; the “other” is a Muslim in the Paris banlieues or the London outskirts; the “other” is a Chinese on the island of Java, who has never learned to write or to speak Chinese, but has also never really been accepted as an Indonesian; the “other”, too, is that annoying human rights activist who does not stop reminding the world of child labor in your fabric. It seems that the world has plenty of “others”!

Deranged dictators and their policies (though not only) are, as a rule, obsessed with “otherness”. Hitler’s Endlösung (Final Solution) had the objective of exterminating every single Jew in Germany, and then beyond. Saddam’s gassing campaigns during Anfal targeted helpless Kurds in selected areas of Iraq, and Milošević’s insane policy of etničko čišćenje (ethnic cleansing) was systematically conducted against non-Serbs in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. Throughout Indonesia, in 1965, everyone was suspected to be a Communist and as a consequence, thousands of innocent people died. Khmer Rouge, in Cambodia, went so far as to kill all the people wearing glasses, for they were deduced to be intellectuals, and therefore enemies of the Angkor, the civilization of Kampuchea established by Pol Pot.

Africa, too, is not spared of such abominable stories. Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis was, similarly to what happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina, replete with cases of war rape, with the scope of humiliating the opponent to the core. Moreover, Uganda’s infamous fugitive Joseph Kony has committed unthinkable atrocities leading the ironically named rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (previously also dubbed the Holy Spirit Movement) and aiming to establish a state based on the Ten Commandments. The ongoing crises in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are closely related to this issue.

Punishing “otherness” can also occur in a less brutal manner, of course. Recently an American Muslim in Lombok, Indonesia, was sentenced to five months for religious defamation because during Ramadan in 2012, he pulled out the plug on a mosque’s loudspeaker claiming that the loud voice disrupted the guests at his guesthouse.[v] Likewise, “others” are in many cases held at a safe distance. For instance, the Palestinian people in Bethlehem cannot exit their town, secluded by a wall, and go and visit relatives in Jerusalem, only 8.5 kilometers away, without an official Israeli authorization that is extremely rarely granted. Similarly, Bosniak people in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, have not been to the Croat part of the city for more than twenty years and vice versa. Moreover, both Bosniaks and Croats also swear they will never do so, ever.

Episode 4: Knowledge of vs. Knowledge for Tolerance

But where does this discussion lead us? Now, imagine the group consisting of a Ugandan Catholic, an Indonesian Pentecostal, a Zimbabwean Anglican, a Bosnian Muslim, an Afghani Muslim, an Indonesian Hindu, an American Jew, and a Croatian Catholic. These people all carry along certain views of those who are “other” to them. Perhaps they think of these others as dangerous; perhaps they are skeptical about them; perhaps they see them with a nuance of neutrality, even indifference, when not in direct contact with them. In any case, there is always a certain level of mistrust in interacting with the “other.” Learning about the “other” in an academic way is useful, but it is only the part of the process (Seligman calls this “knowledge of”).

The most distinctive premise of the school, however, is to link this “knowledge of” with an even more precious form of knowledge: “knowledge for.” Imagine a long day of lectures on the Indonesian constitution or Balinese identity; visits to the Merapi volcano by motorcycle, the breathtaking Prambanan, a collection of 240 Hindu temples, or the Kotesan Buddhist village in Java; or worships like the Jewish Shabbat prayer, the Muslim Juma’t Prayer, the mass in the Javanese Catholic church, or the Shiwa Buddha tooth-filing ceremony in the midst of the rice fields of Bali.

After such a full day, when the abovementioned group of people, heterogeneous in everything one can be heterogeneous in – age, gender, race, religion, language, and built-in conceptions of what is acceptable and normal – has dinner together, dances together, sings on a bus, goes to swim, or cooks together, they necessarily build a closer community. They have shared experiences (for they have just returned from a long day and there is a lot to talk about), and they become more open to talk about some more personal issues, such as conflict, belonging and identity. That is, then, the “knowledge for.”

One particular moment that struck this author and which instantiated all that was said thus far, revolves around a young woman, whose provenance I will not disclose for her own safety, and who is the most impressive person I met during the ISSRPL in Indonesia. Young as she is, she leads an unthinkable life for the majority of us participating in the school, some even more than twice as old as she is. Her life consists in constant fear: how will she get to university? What will happen with her and her sister? Is somebody she knows going to get beaten up or killed? She has been trying for several years to set up educational programs for women in her country’s rural areas, facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles and risking her life on a daily basis.

And in the midst of Bali, the hallucinating paradise, something entirely unplanned happens: the young woman suddenly breaks into tears. And what follows, to me, is the core of the ISSRPL: Muslims, Jews, and Christians from all over the world sit still and listen to the girl’s sobbing. No one is trying to console the young woman with some wise words, proverbs and catchy phrases. Importantly, no one is trying to say: “You know, I understand you, for what is/was done to my people is equally bad”. The only gesture coming from all those present, the Muslims, Jews, and Christians, is that of silence, gradually turning into many tears. Certainly, no one was being tolerant in relation to the girl, for there was nothing to tolerate, given no geographical or historical connection between our realities and her quagmire. But, equally, no one was being indifferent. That is the point where empathy jumps in, or, as Dominique Moïsi has so wonderfully put it, the “geopolitics of emotion.”[vi]

That is, in brief, also what the experience of the ISSRPL teaches us. You actually do not have to tolerate your distant “others”, those you do not live with or are not connected to in any way, because their behavior does not affect you. But you can at least try, once in a while, to see the world from their shoes, and compare to what you see from yours. It is a refreshing experience. And that is exactly what happens when you have some forty people from all over the world discussing the limits of power of Yogyakarta’s sultan under a tree just next to the Prambanan temple.

The near “others”, on the other hand, are a more challenging group to deal with. Not only do you have to try to understand what they are going to do next, but you also have to tolerate them (as much in private as in public, in order for the concept of tolerance to really work) so you can all coexist peacefully. When the ISSRPL fellows go back to their countries of origin, this second, much bigger, challenge immediately arises. One thing is certain: You do not merely study the “other” like you study country flags, Amazonian vegetation, or architectural styles. Much more is at stake. You live with the “other”, acknowledge the differences between that other and yourself, and learn to accept them. It is, indeed, astonishingly simple, and, what is more, it guarantees the “happily ever after” ending. The house is safe; the rats will not return.

All that said, I have to note that normally I am genuinely disinclined to appreciate the texts ending with a verse, or, even worse, a whole strophe. It is just so cliché. But, wishing to leave the confused reader with something tangible, or at least memorable, after hearing a whole lot about tolerance, Ramayana, Indonesia, Bosnia, rats, the problem of otherness, and in particular, the ISSRPL that assembled all those puzzle pieces together into a beautiful mélange, I will close with a poem, for a simple reason. I do not believe that anyone has ever made such a powerful point in fewer words than this particular maestro, on why tolerance is a matter of sheer necessity:

The blood, the soil, the faith
These words you can’t forget
Your vow, your holy place
O love, aren’t you tired yet?

(…)A cross on every hill
A star, a minaret
So many graves to fill
O love, aren’t you tired yet?
–Leonard Cohen, The Faith

Author Bio

Maja Šoštarić, a 2012 ISSRPL Fellow, has a PhD in Political Science from University of Vienna with research stays in Paris and Osaka, a postgraduate diploma in International Studies from Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, as well as a Master’s in Economics from Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration. She has worked with a number of international organizations, NGOs, and think tanks. Her primary interests are diplomacy and international affairs, human rights and languages.


[i] Seligman, Adam B. 2003. “Tolerance, Tradition and Modernity.” Cardozo Law Review no. 24 (4):1645-1656.

[ii] Hefner, Robert. 2011. “Where have all the abangan gone? Regionalization and decline of non-standard Islam in contemporary Indonesia”. In: Politics and religion in Indonesia. Syncretism, orthodoxy and religious contention in Java and Bali. Edited by Michel Picard and Rémy Madinier, 2011. Routledge, London and New York.

[iii] Picard, Michel. 2008. “Balinese identity as tourist attraction: From `cultural tourism’ (pariwisata budaya) to `Bali erect’ (ajeg Bali)”, In: Tourist Studies; 8; p.155.

[iv] Seligman, see supra note 1, p. 102.

[v] Bagir, Zainal Abidin, 2011. “Defamation of Religion Law in Post-Reformasi Indonesia: Is Revision Possible?”, Gadjah  Mada University, Yogyakarta, Indonesia. The paper was first presented “Law and Religious Pluralism in Contemporary Asia” Seminar, 17-18 December 2011, organized by Asia Research Institute and the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore.

[vi] Moïsi, Dominique. 2008. “La géopolitique de l’émotion: Comment les cultures de peur, d’humiliation et d’espoir façonnent le monde”, Flammarion, Paris.

2011 – ISSRPL Occasional Paper No. 4, by James W. McCarty, III

Rejecting Utopias, Embracing Modesty: Reflections on Interreligious Peacebuilding in Light of the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life

James W. McCarty, III

My field of study, Christian Social Ethics, is a child of the “Social Gospel” movement.[i] At its best, this movement represents the incredible possibilities of constructive and theologically informed Christian political engagement toward the creation of a just society. At its worst, it represents the worst of religious social thought: the utopian dreams of naïve people whose religious vision of a perfect society impeded their work for a good one.[ii] Like many others influenced by Enlightenment beliefs about human potential, some Social Gospellers believed that humanity was evolving into a more moral race and was coming into its final stages of development. This dream quickly became a nightmare in the wake of two world wars and the attempted extermination of European Jewry. Advances in technology did not coincide with advances in morality. Rather, they made it possible for the modern phenomenon known as “genocide” to come into existence.

On the other end of the spectrum, for nearly a century people were predicting the global decline of religion. People proclaimed “the death of God” and forecast the rise of a global secularism, understood as the disappearance of religion from public life. Those who were wiser cautioned against such bold claims, but the mainline story for decades was that religion was “on the ropes” and had nearly zero chance of long-term survival. Today we know that such predictions were naïve and pompous. The significance of religion in global public life seems, to people in the West, to have increased exponentially over the last decade. Of course, the importance of religion was never in decline, we often simply chose to ignore its untraditional manifestations. The utopian vision of a “secular” society liberated from religion seems like nothing more than a fairy tale in today’s world.

Finally, many liberals, devoted to social justice and peacemaking around the world, continue to spread the often offensive untruth that “all religions are really the same” or that “at the heart of every religion is love and justice and peace and, therefore, we should all just get along.” They gloss over real and significant differences between religious and theological traditions in order to proclaim a false universalism and surface unity between the religions.  We have seen over and over that people are often willing to die and kill over those seemingly “trivial” differences liberals want to ignore. They pursue the solidarity of religious traditions through the categories of liberalism and, therefore, fail to do justice to both the great religious traditions and the project of liberalism. The utopian hope of all faiths leading up the same mountain is dashed every time someone refuses to climb the aforementioned mountain.

Utopias are exciting and we want to believe them. They give us a goal to work toward and an energizing spirit that inspires masses of people. Utopias sustain us when reality causes others to despair. However, utopias are false dreams that eventually shatter when people attempt to implement them in history because they must eventually exclude those who do not buy into or fit neatly into the vision. Liberalism is one such utopia, and Communism is another, and both have been party to some of history’s most egregious crimes. They were the leading political visions of the bloodiest century on record.

In contrast, the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life (ISSRPL) embodies a pedagogy of modesty. Rejecting all utopias, the ISSRPL pursues tolerance, shared practices, recognized and embraced differences, and the admission of religious, theological, and ethical ambiguity rather than purity in communal religious life. Perhaps the most important form of modesty practiced by ISSRPL, however, is its refusal to claim to know any final answer to the complex question of how to make and sustain peace in a religiously plural world. The school is an experiment as much as it is anything, and while there may be tentative theories being explored, the results of the experiment are not yet clear. Focusing on the lived experience of religion in various contexts, the school challenges and complicates the “neat” pictures of public life theorists like John Rawls and Karl Marx present. Public life is not just “political life” in a narrow sense. Religious life is public life as well.

An Example of What is Possible

Bulgaria is a country that has passed through centuries of Orthodox Christian hegemony, five hundred years of Ottoman rule, decades of a Communist regime, and is now in the early stages of a liberal democratic society. Now, imagine if you will an Orthodox Christian monastery in Bulgaria that is home to one young monk. This monastery was built over a century ago by a Muslim man whose Muslim wife found healing at a nearby spring of healing water tied by legend to the traditional Orthodox faith of the country. Today this monastery houses a very old icon which has a special miraculous power: it provides healing to women who have been unable to conceive. Many women come and pray before this icon every year and find healing for their barren wombs. Christian women pray before this icon. Muslim women pray before this icon. This occurs in a country where churches were destroyed and converted into mosques which were centuries later converted back into churches. This, in a land where Turkish-Muslims were exiled to Turkey, and Bulgarian-Muslims were forced to have their names changed into “Christian” ones as recently as the 1980’s.

In a land with centuries of ebbing religious conflict, how does such a place as this monastery exist? On the one hand, it is a miracle. On the other hand, it is very simple: Christians and Muslims share something there. They share a history, a holy relic, and a practice of healing. Through times of strife throughout the rest of the country people of various religious backgrounds have come to pray before this miraculous icon. They have shared life’s pain and joy, at least, in this one place, and it has survived conflicts between religions and the Communist attempt to eliminate religion.

In this space questions of theology are not asked, Holy Scriptures are not compared and contrasted with one another, and no attempts at conversion are made. People from various religious backgrounds simply share in a practice that gives life. They go away from their shared practice different but not converted. Rather, they allow the space to be what it is—a shared space of life-giving practices—and do not trouble that space with the conflicts that sometimes rage outside.

However, that space is not wholly “public,” and outside that space conflicts still occur quite frequently. ISSRPL exists to discover if there are some other shared public practices that can create the space for tolerance. It is an experiment of which no one yet seems to know the results.

What is ISSRPL?

ISSRPL is an experiment, a “laboratory,” in which scholars and activists of interreligious peacebuilding from around the globe travel to some place in the world with a history of religious conflicts and live together for two weeks. During this time they eat meals together, study together, sightsee together, witness each other’s worship services, and even do “yoga” together. Throughout these two weeks a multitude of conversations and key events occur. For instance, imagine Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians from Bulgaria, Uganda, and Indonesia singing “Amazing Grace” while American Jews and Bosnian Muslims cheer them on. Or, imagine a heated debate about Muslim women wearing headscarves in which a Muslim woman makes it clear she will not remove her scarf because “it is part of who she is.” In response, a Christian man says, “You weren’t born with it on your head,” to which a secular Jewish woman enthusiastically cheers. Both of these instances happened within hours of each other at the 2011 ISSRPL.  This is life at the ISSRPL.

The Principles of the ISSRPL

There are several key principles and assumptions under which the ISSRPL functions. The first is that the dominant models in contemporary political philosophy, liberalism and communitarianism, are inadequate models for making sense of religious plurality and establishing a sustainable peace. Adam Seligman, the founder of the school, said, “[One] purpose of the school is to understand the implications of different political models.”[iii] One implication of both of these dominant models is that they are inadequate in the face of increasing religious diversity. They both assume a certain type of hegemony, of the individual or the traditional community, which inevitably excludes certain religious persons from ever being able to be full members of such a political community. They both create “others” that can never be wholly integrated. Rather than attempt to perfect one of these inherently flawed models, the school is an experiment in creating a third way between them.

A second key assumption is that “part of living together is bearing one’s own discomfort.”[iv] In other words, there are differences that cannot be transcended and these differences will sometimes, if not oftentimes, make us uncomfortable. For instance, I am uncomfortable when I see a woman wearing a burqa; in fact, I find it hard to fathom how enforcing this practice is anything other than a form of oppression of women. In a like manner I cannot count the number of times I have had Muslim women insist to me that women in the West are oppressed because they are forced to adhere to standards of beauty and sexual vibrancy that distract from their intelligence and spiritual strength to be successful. The dress of women in the West is truly offensive to their social, religious, and moral sensibilities. However, this does not mean that we cannot live with one another in a way in which we respect, or at best tolerate, our differences without either of us “accepting” them. More importantly, this does not mean that we cannot live together without eventually wanting to kill one another even if we never accept all of each other’s practices.

This is a third core principle of the school: tolerance is not “too low” a virtue to be the goal of interreligious peacebuilding. It is popular today to dismiss tolerance as an inadequate goal for social life because it implies a “distaste” for another’s way of life and, therefore, we should move beyond tolerance to acceptance or the celebration of differences. The school takes as one of its starting points the exact opposite stance. Just as human rights best function as a “floor” or “basement” for our social life rather than some unattainable “ceiling,” we should strive for tolerance because that is the best we can achieve in a world in which religious differences are often not simply a matter of “taste” but have significant moral and social implications. There is a high likelihood that one’s religious (and political) beliefs and practices are highly offensive to someone else. One part of social life is that we live with people who offend us. Striving to live as if this is not so is another utopia that is bound to disappoint. Rather, if we could simply tolerate those who offend us and make us uncomfortable we will have taken an important first step towards a sustainable peace.

One way in which this discomfort is borne by everyone in the school is by attending one another’s religious services. Witnessing the worship of another person can be a jarring experience. We are reminded of the different ways that we each pray to our God and that we inhabit different religious and moral worlds. While there are always places of contact where some commonality can be found, those points of commonality do not remove or transcend our differences. The differences always remain and must be tolerated if they cannot be accepted.

An important part of such tolerance, for the ISSRPL, is the willingness to live together under the assumption that no one people group—religious, ethnic, national, or racial—has a monopoly on suffering. In other words, no one in the school can claim the suffering of their people as a trump card to end the hard work of attempting to live together through offense and injury.[v] This is, perhaps, the most difficult principle of the school as there are often people in the school who come from places where the rhetoric of “greater suffering” of one group versus another is a daily reality. It is easy to view the goal of tolerance as a cynical one that refuses to move past “petty” offenses, but when one remembers that peacebuilding is not necessarily about how to live peacefully with your annoying next door neighbor but, rather, how to live peacefully with the person who stole your family’s land or how to ride the bus with the person whose brother killed your daughter, we are reminded of how difficult interreligious peacebuilding can be.

The learning that happens in being physically present in the worship of another or in suppressing the desire to claim one’s suffering as a trump card is fundamentally different than the learning that happens when reading an essay on prayer or reading about the suffering in your enemy’s history. This type of learning impacts us beyond some form of generalized knowledge[vi] about the other by forcing one to learn what it means to physically remain in relationship with one whose words or life are at times offensive. This is why the ISSRPL places such an emphasis on embodied pedagogy.[vii]

Finally, the school assumes that over two weeks of living, studying, and working together the group of between thirty and forty well-intentioned people of goodwill will “splinter.” Some event will occur that drives a wedge between certain members of the group. All that we have discussed before is tested in this experience. Can we practice tolerance in the midst of real offense and injury? Inevitably, it seems, the group recovers from this experience and comes back together to live together in a tolerant community. What is it that enables this to happen? This, it seems, is the yet unanswered question. In the year I was part of the school it was drawing upon some of the core principles of Western liberal individualism that brought the group back together. I gathered from conversations that in previous years it was a commitment to some form of communitarianism that brought the group back together after strife. However, neither of these alone is sufficient for the enterprise. The question of the school is, “What is the third way between these two dominant political models that the school is uncovering in its annual practice?”

Embracing Modesty

Out of my experience with the ISSRPL I have learned three key lessons for thinking about interreligious peacebuilding: first, dialogue is insufficient to establish peace; instead, shared practice, even public rituals, are necessary to sustain any peace begun through dialogue or political policy; second, interreligious peacebuilding is risky and there is never any guarantee that an achieved peace will last; third, we must embrace theological, political, and embodied modesty and reject the pursuit of utopias.

One of the most common responses to religious diversity and conflict is to promote interreligious dialogue. In these settings people of different faiths come together and talk about their religious beliefs with one another. Members of one religion teach members of another religion about their holidays, theological commitments, and forms of worship. Oftentimes, the purpose of such sessions is to dispel rumors about a religion or answer “hard questions.” While such dialogue is helpful in introducing people who may not otherwise cross paths to one another, and serves as a type of “icebreaker” between communities, it is insufficient to establish a sustainable peace. The knowledge gained at this level of engagement is still too abstract and general to sustain peace. Rather, people must share life together.[viii] Some form of shared practice—perhaps as simple as sharing a regular meal[ix]—is necessary for people to move beyond seeing those of another religion as a “generalized other.”[x] Practices are concrete, and sharing practices is a an embodied experience that makes it harder to act as if the one you share such a practice with is not a human in the same way you are a human.[xi] It is ritual that sustains religious communities during times of theological strife, and it will take some form of publicly shared ritual between religious communities to sustain any understanding or peace that is achieved through dialogue. “Ideal speech situations” do not exist in reality. In reality what we have are embodied persons who share space with other embodied persons. Shared practices and rituals create an embodied knowledge that simply cannot be achieved through dialogue, no matter how “ideal” it is.

In addition, no matter how much dialogue occurs or how many practices are shared, there is never a guarantee that today’s peace will last tomorrow. Peacebuilding is always risky.[xii] In response to this reality, the ISSRPL emphasizes “trust.”[xiii] It claims that with modernity we have had to learn to live in danger. More often than not we have responded to this danger with practices of exclusion, othering, and violence. In traditional communities there is no need to “trust” anyone because you can have “confidence” in them. Everyone you encounter is a person like you—from the same family or tribe—but with the rise of the modern age we began to live with strangers. You can never be confident about how a stranger will react to your action or even your being. Living amongst strangers seems to be an inherently dangerous situation. In this situation, if we want to live peacefully, we must trust our stranger-neighbor with no guarantee that they will not harm us. Thus, every attempt at living peacefully with those who are “other” is a risky endeavor. [xiv] To pursue a worthwhile end we must always take risks. Our attempts at life-sustaining moral action are never guaranteed success. Too often people refuse to act without the confidence that their actions will achieve their intended results; they do not engage people without knowing they will be respected and treated appropriately. However, if we only welcome others when we are sure our hospitality will be reciprocated we become slaves to our individual prejudices and fears and of our society’s generalized stereotypes of those who are our strangers. To create peace we must be willing to trust people who offend us and make us uncomfortable. It is for this reason that peacebuilding is always a risky endeavor.

Finally, we must embrace what Adam Seligman calls “epistemological modesty”[xv] and Ellen Ott Marshall calls “theological humility.”[xvi] We must be willing to admit we do not have a monopoly on the truth if we are ever to achieve a lasting peace that includes those who are “not like us.” One can claim to know the whole truth and maintain a certain form of peace in a homogenous and hegemonic community, but in a plural society one must always make “modest claims.”[xvii] We must make modest and humble claims—and have modest goals—because bold claims too quickly become utopian justifications to continue the cycle of violence that plagues our world. The most terrible crimes and human rights abuses of the twentieth century—genocides in Europe, Asia, and Africa, constant and protracted warfare, decades of Apartheid rule in South Africa, the use of “disappearances” in Latin America, international terrorism—were all committed in the name of political, ethnic, and religious utopias. Some of history’s greatest atrocities have been motivated by humanity’s highest ideals. The remedy for such overzealous violence is modesty.

One of the leading causes of violence is the notion of “purity.” The pursuit of ethnic and religious purity, especially, has served as a justification for violence against all who may be potential “pollutants.” One way in which we learn to embrace modesty and reject utopias is through sharing spaces and practices with one another. For example, the monastery mentioned earlier is a shared space that both Muslims and Christians in Bulgaria have an interest in preserving because they share practices there. In a similar manner, there is a small community in Macedonia in which Orthodox Christians and Sunni and Shi’a Muslims all celebrate the Day of Saint George at the same shrine. In these celebrations the Christians incorporate some traditionally Macedonian Muslim practices (such as stepping through a string of beads), the Muslims incorporate some traditionally Christian practices (such as giving gifts of eggs dyed red), and they all incorporate traditional Macedonian practices in their celebrations (specifically, the  youth swinging from a rope on a tree).[xviii] They share holiday practices and a holy space and maintain peace while being surrounded by communities that have experienced conflict. While shared spaces and practices are no guarantee of peace, they are a risk that, when taken, opens up the space where trust and peace are viable possibilities.

Conclusion

We live in a world shaped by great ideals and horrific violence. The twentieth century has taught us, if it has taught us anything, that the inevitable outcome of striving for utopian dreams is historically gruesome violence. In response to this, the ISSRPL maintains that we must take modest steps towards religious peace. These steps must be physical and not metaphorical. Politics is impotent to create peace between religious and ethnic groups. Dialogue, while pointing in the right direction, is incapable of sustaining peaceful relations. Perhaps we should return to the lessons of so-called “primitive” or “traditional” religions and communities and create shared practices and rituals that perform peace. Habituation in such practices may be able to form people with the virtue of peacebuilding. And even if we continue to be so different from one another that we still experience discomfort, perhaps we will have enough of the virtue of patience to be able to bear our discomfort. At least, this is what the ISSRPL understands to be its modest claim. And if this happens, maybe we will stop killing each other.

Author Bio

James W. McCarty, III, a 2011 ISSRPL Fellow, is Director of the Ethics and Servant Leadership Program at Oxford College of Emory University, a doctoral student in Religion at Emory University, and a former minister at Normandie Church of Christ.


[i] See Gary Dorrien, Social Ethics in the Making: Interpreting an American Tradition (West Sussex, UK: Wiley –Blackwell, 2011), for the most comprehensive survey of the discipline and the story of its roots in the Social Gospel movement in the United States.

[ii] See Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (1932, Charles Scribner’s Sons; reprint, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), and Reinhold Niebuhr, Reflections on the End of An Era (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934), for two of the most biting critiques along these lines.

[iii] Quoted from an informal conversation at the 2011 ISSRPL.

[iv] Adam Seligman, “Trust, Tolerance and Modernity – the Problem of Liberalism,” lecture delivered at ISSRPL on July 5, 2011.

[v] Charles Taylor has called the phenomena of using the suffering of one’s people group as a “trump card” the “victim scenario.” He claims that one defining feature of the modern world is the proliferation of people claiming to be victims in such a way that it justifies their present and future violence. When two groups continue to use this “victim scenario” against one another a cycle of violence is put in motion that is very difficult to overcome and often ends in the mass killing of innocent people. It is no coincidence for Taylor that genocides arose in an era where the claim to victimhood absolves moral considerations. See Charles Taylor, “Notes on the Sources of Violence: Perennial and Modern,” in Beyond Violence: Religious Sources of Social Transformation in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, edited by James L. Heft, S.M. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), 15-42.

[vi] See Adam Seligman, “Pedagogic Principles and Reflections Developing Out of ISSRPL Practice,” ISSRPL Occasional Paper Series No. 1, http://www.issrpl.org/vision/op.html.

[vii] Ibid., 1.

[viii] This claim is not dissimilar to Sharon Welch’s critique of Jürgen Habermas “that morally transformative interaction requires far more than conversation between different groups and people” and her claim that “genuine’ conversation presupposes prior material interaction, either political conflict or coalition, or joint involvement in life-sustaining work.” See Sharon D. Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk: Revised Edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000). 124.

[ix] Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, 136. “For those whose differences are great, work together is often possible at only the most basic level: preparing food together, cleaning, building houses, making clothing.”

[x] See Seyla Benhabib, “The Generalized and the Concrete Other: The Kohlberg – Gilligan Controversy and Moral Theory,” in Situating the Self: Gender, Community and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics (New York: Routledge, 1992), 158-70, for the classic exploration of generalized knowledge about social groups.

[xi] I am not so naïve as to think that practices as simple as eating together will lead to world peace. Rather, I am claiming shared practices such as cooking and eating open up spaces that make peace a greater possibility than if those spaces had not been opened. Sadly, Tone Bringa, in her documentary film Bosnia: We Are All Neighbors, has demonstrated that even friends who have shared coffee for decades can abandon one another in times of violent conflict between religious groups.

[xii] John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 163-9.

[xiii] See Adam Seligman, The Problem of Trust (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997).

[xiv] This is not unlike Sharon Welch’s “ethic of risk.” Welch argues against an “ethic of control” which has defined so much of Western ethics and argues instead for an “ethic of risk.” She defines the ethic of risk in this way: “The ethic of risk is characterized by three elements, each of which is essential to maintain resistance in the face of overwhelming odds: a redefinition of responsible action, grounding in community, and strategic risk-taking. Responsible action does not mean the certain achievement of desired ends but the creation of a matrix in which further actions are possible, the creation of the conditions of possibility for desired changes.” Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, 46.

[xv] Seligman used this phrase during a group conversation during the 2011 ISSRPL.

[xvi] Ellen Ott Marshall, Christians in the Public Square: Faith that Transforms Politics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), 75-6. “I use the phrase theological humility to denote a posture that (1) admits limitations of knowledge and partiality of perspective, (2) explicitly and deliberately practices hermeneutics, and (3) remains transparent about faith commitments and accountable to other sources of knowledge.”

[xvii] See Adam Seligman, Modest Claims: Dialogues and Essays on Toleration and Tradition, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004).

[xviii] I learned of this shrine from viewing the unpublished film Peace for All (Shared Shrines) and in informal conversations with its director Elizabeta Koneska. The historical background behind this film can be found in Elizabeta Koneska, “Shared Shrines in Macedonia,” in Elizabeta Koneska and Robert Jankuloski, Shared Shrines. (Skopje: Macedonian Centre for Photography, 2009).

2010 – ISSRPL Occasional Paper No. 3, by Edward L. Queen

When Reality Rears Its Ugly Head: Thinking about Religion, Conflict, and the Possible

Edward L. Queen

My thinking on this topic emerges primarily from the work I have done over the past eleven years in the former Yugoslavia and Israel, with some detours to India and Pakistan.  This paper was occasioned by my time in Bosnia (and Boston) as a fellow of the summer 2006 class of the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life.

In writing this paper, I began to think about what got me into this area.  How did someone whose training was an Americanist in Church History, who grew up in central Alabama, and was almost 29 before he ever left the country become obsessed with religious and ethnic conflicts throughout the world?

It is Stewart Brand’s fault.  In the 1970s, Brand, whom many may know as the person behind the Whole Earth Catalog, later published a magazine entitled the Co-Evolution Quarterly.  At some point in the mid 1970s, an issue of that magazine focusing on devolution fell into my hands.  In it I read about Breton, Corsican, Sami, Karen, and Tamil separatism among others.  This information appealed to my perverse nature, to knowing all about these peoples and movements of which most others were unaware

It stuck.  The first course I ever created was, “Religious and Ethnic Conflicts in the 20th Century.”  That was in spring 1989.  Talk about being in front of the curve, all the really good ones still lay ahead, although I did manage to get in the Lebanese Civil War, the earlier Hutu/Tutsi conflicts in both Burundi and Rwanda, and the challenges presented by what we then called religious fundamentalism from the Dominion movement in American Protestant Christianity to the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Then came the wars of the former Yugoslavia.  Those wars affected me intellectually, morally, and personally.

Preeminently they demonstrated the following to me:

  1. The complete and total Moral Failure of the European countries to respond, this topic is not relevant to this paper, except tangentially as we shall see.
  2. The failure of those who observed the events to acknowledge the reality of the significance of the religious elements.  One continues to see it today in many discussions of the war.  Many writers continue to refuse to acknowledge that religion actually does matter or cannot understand why it does.  I found this complete denial of the significance of religion astounding.
  3. I did not understand how people could fail to acknowledge that religion actually could be something important enough to kill others about.
  4. Finally, I was amazed that individuals also found this conflict so “inconceivable” in a literal sense of the term.  The presumption lying behind this perception of inconceivability, namely that peace and understanding are the default options in human existence left me dumbfounded.  As an historian, the idea that anyone would be surprised by human violence amazes me.  (Actually one of the great things about being an historian is the ability to look down one’s nose and say about almost anything, “It isn’t really new you know.”)

So it is from that starting point that I come to you today.

The Former Yugoslavia

In March of 1995 I was standing on a street corner in Indianapolis, Indiana when I colleague of mine greeted me and asked, “Ed, how would you like to go to my country?”  I responded, “Mirko, other than the fact that a war is going on and who is going to pay for it?  Sure.”

This started me on my work in the former Yugoslavia, first in Croatia, then Macedonia, and now Bosnia.

A series of vignettes from those eleven years

1      “We needed to be separated from them.  They are a more primitive culture.”  A comment made to me by a young Croatian academic who holds advanced degrees in religion and philosophy and was a minor dissident during Tito’s time.  (Croatia 1995)

2      President of the Macedonian government’s Commission on Religious Affairs.  He was appalled by the idea that some people wished to construe Macedonia as a bi-religious state–Orthodox and Islamic (forget that maybe it should be secular or even religiously neutral).  “Macedonia is an Orthodox country,” he proclaimed.  “Islam is a religion of the country’s past under the Ottomans, not of the future.”  “Orthodoxy is the only religion native to Macedonia.”  (I forbore asking him where he thought Christianity came from.)  The implication of his entire comments was that all other religious bodies existed in the country simply on sufferance.  (Macedonia 2000)

3      Traveling to Macedonia in 2002, I was seated beside a Macedonian Woman who upon hearing that I was going there to work at the new “Albanian” university became incensed, berating me and cursing and abusing all Albanians informing me that they were primitive animals and did not belong in her country. (2002)

4      Party for staff member’s brother (2002), while helping to set up a university serving the needs of Macedonia’s Albanian speaking population, I happened upon a party celebrating the release from prison of the brother of one of the secretaries.  He had served in the Ushtria Çlirimtare Kombëtare – UÇK National Liberation Army, the Albania paramilitary organization that had led the civil war in Macedonia.

5      Stolac 2006—I spent 10 days living with a recently returned Bosniak family which had been expelled from Stolac in 1995.. What is Stolac?  Stolac is situated in Herzegovina less than 90 kilometers from Mostar.  The Begrava River runs through the center of the village.  The area around Stolac has been inhabited since Neolithic times and it is surrounded by remains of these settlements.  Stolac also contains the largest assemblage of steči, the gravestones distinctive to the old Bosnian Church.  Its beauty and history had placed it on the list of locations being considered for denomination as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

In 1993 the village of Stolac had about 18,500 inhabitants, about 44% Bosniak, 33% Croat, 21% Serb, and a little over 2% who identified as other.  After a Serb attack was beaten back by the combined forces of the Bosnia’s and Croats, the Croats (with assistance from Croatian forces) turned on their Bosniak neighbors, imprisoning the men in the local hospital, where they were tortured and abused.  The women were expelled from the village.  They then proceeded to destroy every Muslim and Orthodox cultural artifact in the village, including mosques built in the 16th and 17th centuries and a 16th century Serbian Orthodox church.  Today the population is 80% Croat and 20% Bosniak.  There are 2 segregated hospitals, one school but the classes meet on separate floors and the bells ring at different times, segregated cafes, and a palpable feeling of dread.[1]

As we move forward developing our work in religion, conflict, and peace building we need to question dramatically our ideas and the quality of them.  My goal is to ensure that we bring ideas and experiences into an ongoing conversation.  We need to have a clear purchase on the conditions of existence and what is possible under those conditions.  Additionally, we need to determine how (and whether) we can change those conditions, providing, therefore, an opening for even more possibilities.

I want to examine three themes about which our ideas have the utmost importance in the areas of religion, conflict, and peacebuilding.  I believe that the extent to which our ideas in these areas are “right,” greatly improves the likelihood of positive movement.  While addressing these themes I will attempt to weave together the theoretical and the experiential.

These three themes are:

  • Nature of human being
  • Conflict
  • Religion’s distinctiveness

I begin with an admittedly unfair use of a quotation with which the Canadian Assemblywoman Pat Lorje closed her presentation which preceded mine at a conference in Geneva, Switzerland in summer 1996.  I had just arrived in Geneva from Zagreb, where I had spent the preceding weeks talking about the future of Croatia and working with individuals struggling to develop civil society organizations.  Harking back to the founders of the New Democratic Party of Canada, Ms. Lorje argued that much is possible when “we are willing to fail at being gods.”  That anyone would make such a claim in 1996 astounded me.  The world had just experienced over nearly 80 years of what did happen when people failed, in various ways, at being gods.  And while she used this statement to speak to the need for creativity and courage in government, I feel it reflects a much different reality.  We have accepted too uncritically a view of history as progressive and have too easily dismissed the horrors possible when we do “fail at being gods.”  At that same conference, I heard the Right Honorable David Willetts, a conservative m. p., argue that England owed its particular and distinctive political culture to the fact that since 1066 England had been free from foreign invasion and that for over 900 years the English had had the opportunity to “get to know each other” to use his words.  While not meaning to be cynical, all I could think of was, “Yes that is true, but for at least 700 of those years the English expended a great deal of effort trying to kill each other, Norman lords hunted down Saxon “dogs,” Tudors fought Stuarts over the right of succession, and England went through its own version of Europe’s religious wars—the affects of which were being felt during that week as the start of that year’s “Marching Season” in Northern Ireland led to some of the most violent conflicts in years.

We must examine seriously the views of human being and of human interaction that lie beneath our understandings of and approaches to religion, conflict, and peacebuilding and the roles that these ideas play in the possibilities we consider.  As Reinhold Niebuhr once quipped, “the doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine.”  Unfortunately, too many social conservatives have used this fact to argue for control and hierarchy.  In doing so, however, they failed to realize that the controllers are just as defective as the controlled.  While hierarchy simply limits the class of people who can do evil, it does not eliminate it and may indeed increase its magnitude.  Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary aptly defined a Conservative as being “A person enamored of existing evils.” (A liberal being a person who desired “to exchange existing evils for evils as yet untried.”)[2]

The events in the countries that used to be the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia are the starting point for this paper.  While I think careful reflection on those events provide a useful and pointed caution, I hesitate somewhat about beginning there.  I want to speak to the universality of their meaning and not reify existing prejudices about the Balkans.  As Pavao Pavličić wrote in his haunting volume, Lament over Europe:

Whenever Europe thinks about us, whenever she talks about us, her reasoning always shows the same bizarre prejudice: we are different from them.  We are less. . . .

This means that we need–and that we merit–less bread, fewer TV sets and less freedom than they do, that we can endure more suffering, that we die more easily and find life less precious.  That our life is worth less than theirs, not only in their eyes but in ours, as well.  And therefore, of course, that different standards are to be used for us than for them, Europeans.[3]

We must grapple seriously with what may well be the most important question of our time.  Namely, in a democratized world can people who understand themselves as fundamentally different live together in a functioning society without killing each other off?

Another anecdote.  When I first entered the gates of the old city of Dubrovnik during the last two weeks of ceasefire in 1995 I came upon large maps of the old city with the legend written in the trade languages of the region–English, French, German, Italian, and Croatian.  None of this is surprising–as a tourist center one would expect such a sight–what surprised me was the content of the map.  The map identified where every shell hit the old city during the “Serbian and Montenegrin aggression” to quote the accompanying text.  The strikes were color coded so one could tell whether the shells destroyed a building, a roof, or simply struck the pavement.

On that visit to Dubrovnik, bounded at its start by the Oklahoma, City bombing and a Serb attack on the Dubrovnik Airport on my scheduled arrival date and at its close by the end of the Yugoslav cease fire, the map loomed before me as I struggled with the meaning of violence and religion.  Not some understanding of the purpose of pain, suffering, and death–deaths unchosen have no purpose in and of themselves, although it is true that they often can effect certain ends, for which the survivors may be thankful and which even the dead might have considered sufficiently valuable–but of what they might tell us about the world and the future of human society.

Culture and history rear their ugly heads, reminding us that relatively well functioning human societies relatively productive of material sufficiency and protection are rare.  Even rarer are those that strive to protect their citizens, allow different peoples to live quietly alongside each other without violence, and do not engage in constant conflicts with their neighbors.  We delude ourselves by believing that progress is inevitable and that the evils of the past have been exorcized.  Human society is a frail thing.

We must acknowledge that conflict, in varying degrees, is the norm for human interaction.  From Hobbes to Hegel, Marx to Locke and beyond, this reality has loomed as central to human existence and as a fact which must be constrained if life were to be something other than a war of all against all.  Perhaps no one better spoke to this unending sense of conflict and its underlying reasons than James Madison.

As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. . . .

A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning Government and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have in turn divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other, than to cooperate for their common good.  So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions, and excite their most violent conflicts.[4]

To work adequately with real, living human beings in overcoming the residual realities of violent conflict, we must, I argue, take this fact seriously.  To build our models upon a presumption that human beings always are willing to be something other than at odds with their sister and fellow human beings is to set ourselves up for failure.  I may have no wish to reconcile with my neighbor and I may be right in that wish.  My neighbor may be wrong, bad, or even evil.  If so, why should I reconcile?  There may indeed be good reasons (and I think there are such reasons) not to make all my actions and responses contingent upon my feelings toward him or her, but I may wish to have little or nothing to do with that individual except on the most instrumental level.  And that wish may not only be legitimate, it may indeed be the right thing to do.

Our agendas need to start out on a modest scale.  We need to focus on what is necessary to realize a society that allows most people to live in peace most of the time, and that minimizes the magnitude of conflict between and among individuals and groups.

Any attempt to address the consequences of human conflict must take seriously the sources of those conflicts.  This requires us to acknowledge that nearly two centuries of political-economy is basically wrong.[5]  To rephrase a line from the 1992 U.S. presidential elections, “It is not the economy, stupid.”  While only a fool would deny the importance of the realm of necessity on human beings’ activities, economic factors do not and cannot explain much human conflict or people’s willingness completely to destroy economies, cities, countries, and their lives in order to achieve certain ends.

In fact, as Albert O. Hirschman compellingly has argued, the transition to seeing economics as the dominant factor in human behavior did not occur as an explanatory factor but as a normative claim designed to inject reason, rationality, and prudence into human action.  The goal was to overcome the passions that dominated human behaviors, and to replace the violence those passions engendered with “the spirit of frugality, of economy, of moderation, of work, of wisdom, of tranquility, of order, and of regularity . . .” that came about by individuals pursuing their interests.[6]  The desire was that by convincing people to pursue commerce, to further their “interests,” the more violent passions would be constrained, indeed overcome.  Turning aristocrats into burghers would end the horribly, destructive violence such as marked Europe during the religious wars of the seventeenth century.

In this regard Francis Fukuyama’s argument in the End of History and the Last Man is particularly telling.

Liberal democracy in its Anglo-Saxon variant represents the emergence of a kind of cold calculation at the expense of earlier moral and cultural horizons.  Rational desire [defined and interpreted in a particular way, I might add] must win out over the irrational desire for recognition . . ..  The liberal state growing out of the tradition of Hobbes and Locke engages in a protracted struggle with its own people.  It seeks to homogenize their variegated traditional cultures and to teach them to calculate instead their own long-term self-interest.[7]

It is important to emphasize here that the goal was the transformation of individuals.  Turning the focus from passions to interests was not designed to explain why people acted in the manner in which they did, nor was it designed to argue that other values such as religion did not matter.  In fact, the point was that they mattered too much.  They were the problem for which commerce, economics, was the solution.

There remain, however, innumerable problems with this solution.  Not only is it to some extent ultimately unsatisfying, its realization is much more difficult than its creators’ epigones dreamed.  Additionally, the transformation of the theme into a picture of how human beings actually do act, rather than of how they ought to act has served to confound our judgment and to hinder policy making.

This failure to take both the power and seriousness of those other moral and cultural horizons seriously explains innumerable policy failures.  From Iran to Kashmir, Ireland to the former Yugoslavia, and even in the United States the real hot-button political issues have had little to do with economics.  They are as James Davison Hunter has said, culture wars, not class wars.[8]  The repeated failures of economic interpretations, from the delusion that the economic integration of the world would ensure that the Great War (World War I) would be short-lived, (prior to its beginning it was conceived of as being impossible), to the sheer irrationality (on many levels) of the Nazi war machine, through the Khmer Rouge’s attempt at national self-immolation, to contemporary Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

While it might serve our egos to dismiss such behaviors as the irrationality they are, such a dismissal only begs the question of why do people not act in “rational” ways, especially as this is understood in economistic terms.  The answer is simple.  For many, nay most, people at least some of the time there are certain goods, certain values that not only surpass doux commerce, in Montesquieu’s phrase, but which are so important that the complete destruction of an economy, a state, or a society is nothing beside their realization.[9]  We need to understand that the desire for the realization of these goods or values, most of which can be encompassed by the term moral-expressive values, cannot be channeled completely into “productive” or “rational” directions.[10]

They are not rational in that minimal understanding that has come to dominate our world.  If that is the case, the question emerges about how to understand and respond to actions that emerge from people’s moral-expressive values?  How can we best act to limit the magnitude of conflicts caused by people’s struggles to realize those values?  If conflict is the norm for human behavior, or at least a sufficiently significant element in human interactions then we need to take it seriously.  We also need to deal with the pre-eminent sources of those conflicts.

If the major source of conflicts is what I am calling moral-expressive values, those values upon which rest people’s understandings of the way the world works or ought to work.  Of these values, preeminent among them is religion.  One can make the argument that religion readily is the dominant and most powerful source people’s understandings of the how the world functions.[11]

Coming to grips with religion as a dominant source for human action is of utmost importance.  The role religion played in violent conflicts over the last thirty plus years has been an obvious and frightening reality. The genie which many felt was locked securely in the bottle has escaped with a seeming vengeance.  From Sri Lanka to Ireland, Kashmir to Sudan, the former Yugoslavia to Afghanistan, religion has emerged either as the source of conflict or as the symbolic galvanizer of multiple aspirations, that is to say as the source for people’s construction and understanding of the necessity for the conflict.[12]

In functioning at least as the ideological and rhetorical source for constructing this violence, religion seems to be fulfilling that role which was a powerful goad to the construction both of modern democracy and the development of civil society as it has been understood within the Anglo-American tradition.  Recoiling from the horrors of the 30 years war and, later, the English Civil War many European intellectuals both on the Continent and in England increasingly began to reconsider religion’s relationship to the state. This became a growing theme throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century as numerous men of action and reflection struggled to determine how a state could best be organized so that neither chaos nor tyranny would gain the upper hand.  Throughout this process religion as a “problem” remained preeminent in the minds of many.  As usual, David Hume framed the issue most directly.

The tolerating spirit of idolaters, both in ancient and modern times, is very obvious to anyone . . .The intolerance of all religions which have maintained the unity of God is as remarkable as the contrary principle of the polytheists.

[I]f, among Christians, the English and the Dutch have embraced principles of toleration, this singularity has proceeded from the steady resolution of the civil magistrate, in opposition to the continued efforts of priests and bigots.[13]

Although framed in various ways and usually linked with particular understandings of natural law and natural rights, often divinely ordained, increasingly it became normative that the way to ensure that the state would not be torn apart by religious conflict was to remove religion from any engagement with the state.  This became the basis for the construction of democratic states from the late eighteenth century until the present.  Certainly there were variations on the theme–one need only examine the differences between the United States, France under the first and third republics, England, Italy, and India to understand that–but religion as the determinative factor for membership and participation in the life of a democratic state decreased in significance.

In fact, just the opposite attitude took hold.  Religion increasingly was viewed as a limiting factor on the development of democracy, equality, and human freedom.  As Hans Küng argued in On Being A Christian,

It was not the Christian Churches–not even those of the Reformation–but the “Enlightenment.” often apostrophized by Church and secular historians alike as “superficial,” “dry” or “insipid,” which finally brought about the recognition of human rights: freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, the abolition of torture, the ending of persecution of witches, and other humane achievements. . . .  If we were to believe the church history manuals, the great ages of the Catholic Church in particular were those of reaction to the modern history of freedom: the Counter-Reformation, the Counter-Enlightenment, the Restoration, Romanticism, Neo-Romanesque, Neo-Gothic, Neo-Gregorian, Neo-Scholasticism.  It was a Church therefore in the rearguard of mankind, compelled by its fear of anything new always to drag it heels, without providing any creative stimulus of its own to modern developments.[14]

This well-justified critique of the Church could, as one looks to the contemporary period, be expanded to include nearly all of the world’s religious traditions.  The particularity inherent within religious traditions, the claimed knowledge of absolute truth that seems to be at the core of nearly all traditions–including, to give the lie to Hume, those which are polytheistic as in the case of resurgent Hindu nationalism and Buddhism in Sri Lanka–seems to encourage the possibility of exclusion and force.  (And I would urge you to read the World War II era writings of D. T. Suzuki and other Japanese Zen masters if you believe Buddhism in any form is free from such views.)  Even where violence is not the norm, the very absolutizing nature of religion seems to place it at odds with the values of tolerance and democracy.

Contrary to expectations of social scientists, social theorists, and historians of the past century, religion does not seem to have disappeared as a social force.  The secularization thesis does not seem to hold and, in fact, seems not only to be demonstrably false, but it also leads to egregious policy errors among those who base their decisions upon it.[15]  As Mark Juergensmeyer has argued:

What appeared to be an anomaly when the Islamic Revolution in Iran challenged the supremacy of Western culture and its secular politics in 1979 has become a major them in international politics in the 1990s.  The new world order that is replacing the bipolar powers of the old Cold War is characterized not only by the rise of new economic forces, a crumbling of old empires, and the discrediting of communism, but also by the resurgence of parochial identities based on ethnic and religious allegiances.[16]

If religion cannot be eliminated completely and if it cannot be neutered by the state, then it must be accepted as a fact.  Any attempt to construct and to maintain viable democracies and civil societies in the future, therefore, must in fact take religions seriously as realities which play powerful roles in people’s lives, including how they construct the world.  In doing this we might be able to recover and to address more directly the positive and productive elements of religion in those constructions.

Religion, however, not only affects people’s lives, it also has a massive influence on the ways in which cultures are constructed.  This is especially true of the social norms of right and wrong, good and bad.  For this reason, understanding how dominant religious traditions construct the social norms under which members of particular societies operate, especially as those norms affect their relationships with those who may have competing values and interests, with the stranger, is key, to understanding both the ways in which religions can drive conflict or can hinder or even help in the process of reconciliation.  Understanding the complex roles that religion plays in how people understand what to value and how they ought to act may, in many ways, be the key to negotiating the tensions between universality and particularity.

To claim that religion matters, that it is important, perhaps even pre-eminently important, is not to claim that religion always is good or right.  Nor is it to claim that other factors do not and have not operated in human affairs.  In fact, other factors often have been (and remain) determinative to human actions.  One question remains, however.  Why is religious language so central to elaborating, elucidating, and rationalizing human actions and activities?  Why even in the process of violating religion have so many people used the tradition as the rationale?  Why have even the most violent and oppressive of tyrants felt compelled historically to use their monuments to affirm their positions as defenders of the faith as well as their liberality and generosity?  In Lynn Thorndike’s appropriately pointed words:

Indeed, it is hardly conceivable that any human legislator or religious teacher ever ventured to state as his aim the oppression of widows and orphans, or to boast that he had helped the strong against the weak.

[T]he occasional largesses by despotic rulers that have been written so large on the page of history, which resembles the modern newspaper in devoting much of its space to advertisements, were probably not peculiar to them but were adduced by their eulogists to show that they did not fall short of the conduct demanded by common humanity.[17]

While some may be distressed by the cynicism of these words, their verisimilitude cannot be denied.  The fact that rulers find themselves forced to affirm publicly their greatness by proclaiming their generosity, magnanimity, and their roles as protectors of the faith, by saying that they are “good people” suggests something terribly significant about how societies construct what they value and admire and how important these values are even for the most despotic of rulers.   It is just those values that they highlight when they make their appeals for greatness.  “Hypocrisy,” Oscar Wilde purportedly quipped, “is the compliment vice pays to virtue.”  But in paying virtue that compliment vice recognizes the priority virtue has upon it and upon the mind of society.  One rarely hides that which one thinks others will admire. One does parade, however, what others will applaud. The social nature of values and the role of religion in constructing social values must be understood if we are to try to uncover the ways in which an individual’s recognition and acceptance of social demands, even resignedly, can cause the individual to do good, even when the individual may be inclined to do otherwise.  Viewed from this perspective, social and cultural pressures exercise controls that are positive goods rather than merely objects of suspicion.  By serving to constrain human selfishness and the will to power and by goading individuals to act for the good of others, cultural and social norms are key to maintaining the functioning of society.  For that reason the role of religion in structuring those norms needs further examination and elaboration.

What then are the roles of religion in accomplishing those tasks?  Since the anthropologies of most religious traditions have shown themselves more complex, subtle, and valid than those of the secular world, they potentially can help us to understand how individual when confronted with the disparity between what is good for them and “what is good for others” can and do sacrifice the former for the sake of the latter.[18]

Additionally, religious anthropologies can help us to understand why the pressures provided by religio-cultural norms are not solely or even primarily structures of oppression and domination but provide the conditions of possibility for anything approaching a functioning society.  They may in fact be something not to overcome but absolute necessities for human existence.

To a great extent these claims are no more than the foundational bases of the discipline of sociology.  Unfortunately, not only has much of contemporary sociology tended to ignore religion as an independent variable but has completely transvalued the earlier understandings of social norms as necessary conditions for the possibility of human existence to simply expressions of domination and oppression.  The recovery of the positive role of social norms in human existence is important and even central to getting at ways in which religion plays a powerful (and positive) role in human society.[19]  This is not to suggest that all cultural norms are good, necessary, or valid and ought to be maintained, far from it.  It does mean to suggest that the mere fact that those norms impose constraints and limits on human willfulness is not be taken as inherently bad in and of itself, but in fact may be productive of significant social goods.  As Mark Twain is reported to have quipped, “Be yourself is the worst advice you can give to some people.”

We must, therefore, reject the long prevailing secularist models in the social sciences—especially in sociology, economics, and psychology—that created interpretive frameworks which view religion as an epiphenomenon or superstructure, rather than as a true explanatory or prescriptive factor.   Under these models religion existed merely as a smokescreen for the “true” factors influencing human behavior and action–namely class, self-interest, power, or ego-gratification.  While impossible to separate any particular manifestation of religion from its social and historical context, the unitary modes of explanation have failed to recognize that religious beliefs and religiously motivated behavior have consequences for the societies in which they exist and for the individuals whom they affect.  Additionally, religions are traditions, they perdure over time and embed within the faithful certain practices.[20]  As historical, they exist before and after any particular believer and place limits on what any given individual or groups of individuals can do and remain within the religion.[21]  Religious traditions shape and construct individuals and cultures.  They are not merely constructed by them.  Any attempt to understand the range of norms and values within a culture must begin by taking religion seriously as a phenomenon.  The refusal, or failure, to recognize that religions are significant realities, exerting tremendous influences on their adherents prevents any adequate understanding of a culture and its members.  If religion is “ultimate concern” as both Paul Tillich and the U.S. Supreme Court have claimed, it is completely inconceivable that it not affect people’s thinking and behaviors.[22]  To understand this effect one must take religion seriously as an object of study. The failure to do so, although capable of providing powerful interpretations and useful extensions of our knowledge, cannot help us to understand the role of religion in the lives of individuals and societies and in the role religion plays in both constructing violence and in mitigating it.

Religions provide an understanding (if not the understanding) of why the universe is the way it is, how it ought to function, and the roles and obligations of individuals in that universe.  Religions structure not only the way individuals apprehend the world but also the way in which communities and individuals structure and understand the world.  The result is that religions must be understood as having significant, if not a preeminent affect on the ways in which people behave and the ways in which their societies structure their understandings of the good.

A final note on the role of religion in this regard involves a claim I make tentatively.  Despite the evils perpetrated by religious traditions, the evils perpetrated by anti-religious traditions, as obvious in this century, have been far, far greater.  I will argue that despite their absolutizing nature, religious traditions have an ultimate stop absent from traditions lacking a transcendental component.  As divinely ordained, religious traditions have an external limit on what they ought and ought not do or continue to do.  Religions have this limit because they are directed at some transcendental reality (or realities) to which is attributed power and authority beyond that of humans, in fact power and authority over humans.  Ultimately, in every religious tradition some transcendental component (usually denominated god) remains as judge.  Whereas in human social movements the nature of authority remains in the hands of human beings who constantly can manipulate the system for their own ends and purposes and when in positions of power do not find any viable judge on their activities.  Religion, therefore, despite its horrid excesses may in fact be less prone to evils than its absence.[23]

These are mere speculations, but speculations which we must pursue.  In this pursuit, however, we must proceed with clarity both of purpose and of possibility.  We need to start with an understanding of the limits of human being.  The focus must be on what has to happen (and can), not on what we want to happen.  Goods may emerge but we should steadfastly avoid producing greater evils.  There must, therefore, be an ongoing interchange between our ideas and reality.  The world does not always conform to our wishes and our desires for it must be realizable.  Can we expect more from most people most of the time than a grudging acceptance of the other?  I do not know.  But, I do not think we can begin for hoping more than that.  People not killing each other off, is pretty good.  Or at least looks pretty good to an historian.  Theologians, philosophers, and others may have higher expectations.  In saying this, I do not mean to imply that I think better is impossible.  I know it is, but maybe it ought not to be our initial goal, although it may be our hope.  And hope itself is valuable.  In closing, I leave with one other vignette, one that demonstrates the possibility.  After sitting all day in the Mehteb, the beit ha midrash, the study hall of the rebuilt Uzinovićki masjid in Stolac, Bosnia-Herzegovina, we broke for dinner, I passed one my fellow participants, an Orthodox Jew and a religious Zionist who runs an institute that undertakes democratic education among religious Zionists in Israel.  As I asked him whether he was coming, he responded.  “Not right now.  I am going into the mosque to daven.”  It was time for mincha, l-asr prayers were complete and the masjid provided a quiet and contemplative place.  It made perfect sense.  And it suggests where I hope we can end, but it cannot be where we begin.

Author Bio

Edward L. Queen, a 2006 ISSRPL Fellow, is director of the D. Abbott Turner Program in Ethics and Servant Leadership and Coordinator of Undergraduate Studies at Emory University’s Center for Ethics. At Emory he also serves as Director of Research for the Institute of Human Rights and co-convener of the Initiative on Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding.


[1] See Crimes in Stolac Municipality (1992—1996) (Sarajevo: DID, 2001 (1996)).

[2] Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary( New York: Dover Publications, 1993).

[3] Pavao Pavličić, Lament Over Europe (Zagreb: The Croatian Writer’s Association, 1994).

[4] Publius (James Madison), The Federalist, No. 10 (New York: Bantam Books, 1982).

[5] In focusing this critique on the economistic argument, I do not mean to suggest that other materialist positions are not equally invalid.  It simply is an attempt to demonstrate the failings and weaknesses of such arguments and to open up the space for articulating a counter explanation.

[6] Montesquieu, Esprit de Lois (Part One), quoted in Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), 71.

[7] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Avon Books, 1992), 214.

[8] James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1991).

[9] A comment made by Slobodan Milošević illustrates this claim.  In a secret meeting with Serbia’s mayors at the Serbian parliament building, he proclaimed, “[I]f we don’t know how to work and do business, at least we know how to fight.”  Quoted in Laura Silber and Allan Little, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation (New York: Penguin Books, 1997).

[10] With the phrase “moral-expressive” values I mean those goods (both material and immaterial) that individuals feel are necessary for the realization of a truly good life.

[11] See for example Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” in Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 87-125.

[12] Douglas Allen, editor, Religion and Political Conflict in South Asia: India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992); Mark Juergensmeyer, The New Cold War?: Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Mark Juergensmeyer, editor, Violence and the Sacred in the Modern World (London: Fran Cass, 1992); K. M. de Silva, Pensri Duke, Ellen S. Goldberg, and Nathan Katz, editors, Ethnic Conflict in Buddhist Societies: Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Burma (Boulder: Westview Press, 1988); Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby, editors, Fundamentalism and State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Roy Licklider, Stopping the Killing How Civil Wars End (New York: New York University Press, 1993); James A. Haught, Holy Hatred: Religious Conflicts of the ‘90s (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1995); Francis Mading Deng, War of Visions: Conflict of Identities in the Sudan (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1995); Norman Cigar, Genocide in Bosnia: The Policy of “Ethnic Cleansing” (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1995); Joyce Pettigrew, The Sikhs of the Punjab: Unheard Voices of State and Guerilla Violence (London: Zed Books, 1995); Olivier Roy, Afghanistan: From Holy War to Civil War (Princeton: Darwin Press, 1995); Andrew Boyd, Holy War in Belfast: A History of the Troubles in Northern Island (New York: Grove Press, 1972); Kay B. Warren, The Violence Within: Cultural and Political Opposition in Divided Nations (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993).

[13] David Hume, The Natural History of Religion  Chapter XI, IX (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1991).

[14] Hans Küng, On Being a Christian (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1976).

[15] Two egregious examples of this have occurred recently in U. S. policymaking.  The first involved the failure of the U. S. Department of State and its intelligence agencies to understand the importance of religion in the Khomeinist revolution in Iran as admitted by then C.I.A. Director Stansfield Turner during his testimony before Congress, and the failure of federal law enforcement officials to understand the Branch Davidians as an apocalyptic religious movement rather than as a criminal hostage situation.  See Lawrence E. Sullivan. “Recommendations to the U. S. Departments of Justice and the Treasury  Concerning Incidents Such as the Branch Davidian Standoff in Waco, Texas,” (Cambridge: Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, 1993).  The Soviet/Russian state has had perhaps an even worse time of it.  One need only recall the debacles they have experienced in Afghanistan and in Chechnya.

[16] Mark Juergensmeyer, The New Cold War?: Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 1-2.

[17] Lynn Thorndike, The Historical Background,: in Ellsworth Farris, Ferris Laune, and Arthur J. Todd, editors, Intelligent Philanthropy (Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith, 1969 [1930]), 25.  In using this example, I do not mean to suggest that religious traditions’ charitable understandings are the basis for moving reconciliation forward, I simply use this to illustrate the power that normative claims exert on individuals.

[18] For a discussion of this see Amartya K. Sen, “Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 6 (1977), 317-344.

[19] See Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963); Weber, The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1958);  Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology (New York: Bedminster Press, 1968);  Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life: A Study in Religious Sociology (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1947); Talcott Parsons, The Social System (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1951).

[20] See Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System.”  See also Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).

[21] This is not to suggest that new religions do not emerge within historical memory or that extant traditions do not change.  The claim is that any given group of practitioners of a particular religion has certain boundaries over which they cannot cross and still be considered members by others in the tradition.  An important example of this is that of Christianity separating from Judaism.  Corollary to this is that within those boundaries the meaning of any tradition can be, and often is, contested.  There exist different and competing interpretations of the texts within a tradition, their meanings, and of practices.  To some extent this means that religions always are available for manipulation on behalf of immediate and particular goals, including the maintenance of the status quo.  The claim that this is inherently the case for religion is essentially counter-factual, as demonstrated by the huge numbers of religious martyrs.

[22] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol I, “Reason and revelation, Being and God,” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 10, 12-14, 214-216, 220-223, and passim.  For the United States Supreme Court please note the opinion in United States v. Seeger 380 U. S. 163 (1965).

[23] For an example of this see the story of Nathan and David, II Samuel 11-12: 23.

2009 – ISSRPL Occasional Paper No. 2, by David W. Montgomery

Otherness and the Experience of Difference: From Encountering and Evaluating to Eschewing and Enduring

David W. Montgomery

The muezzin makes the last call to prayer and some men make their way to the small neighborhood mosque. Three blocks away, twelve women loiter for sex; men are also making their way to them. What is there to make of this ostensibly divergent movement and the chasm of morality it appears to represent? Much is made of the difference, but what seems to protect one from the other is the very understanding of difference, that both are “Other” and therefore distant, unrelated, and unnecessary.
—Field notes, June 2007, Istanbul

An unavoidable aspect of community is the creation of the other as a distinction of those who belong from those who do not. The utility of this process is far reaching; it encompasses domains of personal safety as well as the preservation of moral safety. “Modern” individual “free will” actors, as well as members of more traditionally oriented communities for whom “free will” is a less operative concept, all live within groups. Though the nature of what binds a group is varied, the boundaries that constitute a group become reified through membership and affiliation. There is an aspect of openness that allows like-members to be included in a group, but this openness cannot be endlessly inclusive, lest membership be meaningless and the group be characterless and too amorphous. In addressing the challenge of living together in the face of what seems to be a social fact—that differences are unavoidable and built into the very nature of reifying social communities—there is a process of recognizing otherness and assessing difference. Yet the outcomes of living with otherness are not predetermined. Furthermore, awareness of how this process develops constitutes one step toward living together in a world of difference.

From Encounter to Pivotal Response

Othering happens. It is learned at an early age through finding out with whom we can play and with whom we cannot. Over time these early aspects of prejudices and affinities become imbued with moral scaffolds, and by the time they do, they are often ingrained so as to be accepted as fact. The building of otherness surrounds us and is part and parcel of sociality. Though it may come with the baggage of prejudice, knowing the other begins with the first encounter. Encounters with individuals in our environment involves, both actively and passively, a realization or unearthing of variation; discovery of difference that is perceived along a continuum from negligible to threatening.

This encounter with difference can be instantaneous or protracted over the course of countless meetings, but it always leads to an evaluation of difference. The evaluation of our surroundings involves the rational alongside the irrational and an assessment that is pragmatically contextualized in relation to the needs of the individual and the obligations felt toward the community of membership, or primary affiliation for the purpose of assessment. As an individual is taken outside of his/her comfort group and support network that reinforced individual biases, a certain trajectory of the evaluation process develops. When a relationship begins, most aspects of friction are overlooked for the pleasure of appreciating the newness of place and effort to navigate toward the establishment of an affinity group within the newly formed group. Many groups in longstanding conflict or entrenched contexts of bounded communities do not risk engagement, for communities do not always interact; furthermore, in many groups evaluation has already taken place or is seen as predetermined, thus encountering the new is unwelcome. As newness subsides to developing familiarity—often under stress and resisting, at times quite viscerally—that which challenges and seems to threaten understandings of difference pushes the individual toward a position in relation to the other. The hope, at least for furthering an opportunity for living with difference, is not necessarily a state of reconciliation but the pivotal point of charting the path of future orientations toward difference: opting to endure rather than eschew.

The pivotal point in social relations is what is done in response to the encounter and subsequent evaluation of difference, where differences are either eschewed or endured. The eschewal of difference can be either a complete disassociation of the other from any social engagement or the overlooking of difference in deference to imagining sameness. The former iteration—of distancing oneself so far as to cease engagement—akin to building a wall and closing the door is, in essence, the end of a conversation. The latter variant of eschewal is one that is predicated on the (often false) idea of an ultimate sameness that, if searched for ardently enough, erodes the barriers of difference. This second approach is common to many interfaith peacebuilding initiatives that attempt to build dialogue and a foundation for overcoming religious difference by emphasizing the shared Abrahamic ancestry. Despite a common origin in heritage, this is not enough to embrace the pervasive reality of real, nonnegotiable difference; replacing difference with a pseudo-sameness is of suspect utility, for it quite dangerously fails to take as real the lived categories of religious difference. One only needs to think of how relations between coreligionists fall apart around the differences between understandings of doxa and praxis to know that shared claims to Abraham are, for practical purposes, insufficient.

Another evaluative option toward approaching difference is the realization of it being unsettling, uncomfortable, yet unavoidable. Within the context of religion, this enduring of difference both recognizes the nonnegotiable nature of many cosmological orientations and accepts that the eschewal of wall building is unsustainable in an increasingly interconnected world. At some levels, this contains the notion of tolerance with regard to allowing that with which one disagrees and finds distasteful or repressible, but at a linguistic level it captures the nature of the project being undertaken: differences that matter are not taken lightly, but endured. At first blush, this is a harder position to sell than a narrative of oneness and unified harmony, but in a world of complex and increasingly interrelated associations, it is the most tenable approach.

ISSRPL OP 2 - Montgomery - figure

The pivotal moment in a relationship between individuals and group members is the decision to eschew or endure difference, and all that goes into that decision. Although much of this is cognitively tied to the evaluative step, it is also not an altogether active process. The hegemonic space in which these decisions progress influences behavior, though at some points it is nonreflective and plays out in our doing (or avoiding doing) things together. This inherently influences the trajectory of conflict, which can be endless in opportunity and pervasive in social existence. An intersubjective realization of the move from eschewal to endurance leads to the substantive chance of multiple communities of multiple meanings advancing everyday peace, which is engagement at the neighborhood level.

Approaching the Pivot through an Experience from Turkey

The theoretical is informed, and in fact arrived at, through the experiential, through attempts to make generalizable sense of the particular. To move theory to the practical level of lived experience it seeks to explain, the 2007 International Summer School on Religion and Public Life held in Turkey can be described as an experiment in encountering difference. A group of twenty-seven fellows constituting converging worlds of difference was brought together for a fortnight of encountering the other. The group members came from different countries, cultures, and religious professions, thus bringing different experiential worldviews. While diversity is often advanced as a virtue in Western liberal parlance, the constitution of such a group in no way predetermined social harmony. Though an interest in the experiential process of the school was something shared, this paled in comparison to the historical tensions among the communities represented by the participants.

Two trajectories of difference were at play that influenced group dynamics. First, there was the background of societal differences, which for many represented a cultural environment of unfamiliar words, smells, sights, and societal histories justifying inclusion and exclusion. Turkey—with its Ottoman past, secular and Islamist tensions over the state, and wounds of ethnic conflict—resonated to varying degrees with the fellows’ experience. The second variable of difference was the group itself, which had largely been pulled out of its affinity group. The temporary excision from one’s comfort group allowed for reflection of the self through others without having to immediately commit to collective biases. As such, there was newness, openness, and vulnerability in the initial meetings. Early interactions were the encounter and evaluation stages where differences were sized up and the other assessed. Where the evaluative step carries resonance is in the doing together, for it is here that the depth of difference is tested and more fully appreciated. The move between eschewing and enduring pivots around this experience and, while it is always subject to ongoing (re)evaluation and negotiation, it constitutes a self-reflective openness necessary in a move toward toleration.

The first among these shared experiences was a visit to the Patriarchal (Orthodox) Church in Phanar with Jews (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox), Christians (Orthodox, Protestants, Roman Catholics), Muslims (Sunni, Alevi, Ismaili), and those who did not identify with a religious tradition. This presented a particular tension between those who saw the service as an environment facilitating a connection with the sacred and those who saw it in an anthropological light. We were spending much of our time trying to find connections of sameness that would give us a modicum of familiarity with each other, but because of our different religious backgrounds we came to the service with different capacities for appreciating it. The service had aspects of formality in the rituals and high liturgy but also informality in the coming and going of congregants, the directions given throughout the service by the clerics, and the continual photography that gave it a sense of theatrical performance. What could be understood and shared by everyone was only the process of having been to the service, not the meaning of the service or the cosmological door it presumably opened to some of the participants.

In visiting the Patriarchal Church in Phanar, part of the issue was the seeming disconnectedness felt when we are outside of the fold. In part, this can be associated with the difficulty of sustaining a feeling of connectedness, a relation. One of the challenges becomes respecting the boundaries and yet finding ways not to diminish them or belittle them, but rather to move beyond them, to make points of connection, of relatedness; not sameness, but associatedness. Though the difference the service presented to a Protestant, Orthodox Jew, or Sunni Muslim was far from the same some participants could share the desire for the service to be 30 minutes rather than 3 hours; an appreciation of art and ornament; or the basic experience of observing something different. But this sharing was very different than what presumably was shared by the Orthodox participants. We were encountering our differences.

Later, while visiting the Armenian Patriarchate, we saw that hard questions, sometimes aggressively asked, brought to light difference of codes of conduct for the group itself, how it regulates its members, and the expectations of the group members toward our hosts. The same applied to our visit to leaders of an Islamic group the following day. We were not yet a group in the sense of experiences having solidified our shared commitment to each other, but we were experiencing the challenges of having differing expectations of social codes that are often not as universal as we would like to assume. We had yet to develop a level of trust that would allow us to translate what we were experiencing. The politically correct answers given by the Armenian Patriarchate regarding the Armenian Genocide question; the message of Islam presented by the members of M. Fethullah Güllen’s movement; or the encounter with Orthodox Christian rituals that were meaningful for some and merely exotic to others, all represented experiences to be processed for meaning. But in ruminating over the codes of conduct for talking with others—avoiding aggression that confronts a host in a way that is beyond what could politely be expected—we began to formulate ourselves as a group. Representatives from the Armenian Patriarchate and Güllen’s movement were not in a position to tell us about their innermost feelings on the Turkish state and national and religious feelings because too much was at stake and too little was to be gained. Groups of difference often find parallels in such calculations, not knowing how much to risk in sharing with someone clearly outside of the self-identified interest group; our group was no exception. We were all in the process of evaluating our differences.

The pains of being in a group that constituted such difference played out in many settings, but two I mention here were representative of the religious and national questions posed by being together. With time together leading us beyond introductions and toward familiarity, differences became increasingly clear and uncomfortable. Being hosted by the Alevie community, the very nature of Islamic identity was challenged for some Muslims in the group who, at various levels struggled to accept the legitimacy of Alevies as coreligionists. This made all too clear that the “Muslim” category in the group was anything but precise when it came to the margins of what was seen as the nature, or essence, of a religious identity. In the same way Jews (Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox) in the group struggled over the question of counting women as part of the minyan, the Sunni Muslims and Alevie in the group struggled over issues that mattered at a deeply personal, intimate, and cosmological level. Some Sunnis refused to eat the food of the Alevies and some went through a process of othering the Alevies in the classical way of advancing an orthodox-heretic dichotomy.

The same happened when ethnic categories were raised and members of our group recited diverse experiences of the Kurdish question, ranging from the experience of Kurdish persecution to claims of Turkish vilification. The pains of having different realities—seen most vividly when forced into being recognized or articulated in the ways of practice—brought strain to the definition of a pluralist group and the easiest way to resolve the problem was to downplay it or attempt to create an all encompassing category to eschew it. Although Sunnis and Alevies can be Muslims in the understanding of Christians or Jews, they are not always seen as such within the “Muslim” collective. Likewise, in Turkey, encompassing Kurds as being Turks by nature of being a Turkish citizen is clearly different than the rub of distinction that is politicized as Turkish-Kurds and Turkish-Armenians experiencing the state in a way that Turks in majority do not.

To eschew the difference is, in part, the trope upon which sameness is built. But as the closeness of the group made poignant, the thin and unstable ground of building an inter-group relationship on what can be shared overlooks the practical fact that so much cannot be shared. There are strains to defining the group and not everyone can be satisfied. But such is the nature of group membership; people cannot be completely pushed outside if there is to be sustainable relations. Setting boundaries is essential to establishing the other and establishing the group. But the difficultly, and success, of bringing a group together is seen in the distrust and reservations that yield to eventual moments of connection and collective experiences, which create glimpses of ways we can live and work together in spite of our differences.

As the two weeks went by, it cannot be said with any certainty how many of the fellows returned to their comfort communities to advocate enduring the other as an approach to difference, but by the end of our time together it had become the operative approach in our engagement with one and the other. Arguably, this allowed us to develop a more substantive appreciation for each other. As the Summer School started, there was a belief that by participating in the same program we constituted a group; by the time it was over, we saw that the only way to really become a group was through struggling to share experiences that lead us to endure difference through an individual decentering of the self.

When enduring difference, modest progress is made in encountering the other in a way that is decentering; we are forced to evaluate it and our own stereotypes with a seriousness seldom seen in the practice of everyday life. We generally eschew the other, though in reality we have to endure the other as well as the difference he or she embodies. In so doing we are presented with a choice. The default, perhaps, is to retreat to our own communities of identification. We can also take stock of having experienced the difference of the other—and being decentered by it—and make the other part of our group. There is hope in the latter approach, because it acknowledges that we all have suffered and recognizes that discounting the validity of another’s experience is both self-serving and myopic. We tend to bring assumptions and prejudices to our everyday lives that, in a normative stance, occlude most efforts to objectively assess ourselves. These are the limits of discussion in which we reference ourselves back to a familiar domain and a general insistence of walking within such restricted parameters. But living with shared experience and something close to shared memories, the value of and livability in enduring difference lays the foundation for expanding the pursuits of tolerance.

Conclusion

There is no way out of a world of others. The way in which the prejudices and affinities play out in relationships is often the focus of conflict and discourse about conflict with little attention given to the micro-negotiations of living with the other—of crossing daily boundaries of difference—that contribute significantly to peaceful coexistence. This acknowledges something about social relations and societies in general: difference is othering, unpalatable, and disliked. Those on the fringe of society are often condemned in moral terms rather than in a context reflective of economic realities or social prejudices—this can be migrant workers or businessmen, prayer goers or prostitutes. In thinking of groups and socialization, it is at the fringe where public outrage ceases to question the veracity of attempts to regulate the behavior of what is seen as a social threat. It becomes of primary importance that it be controlled.

Most of us live within the extremes of morality: we claim piety and rightness as our own whereas wickedness and depravity we assign to the other, from whom we choose to distance ourselves. In most groups that live together differences are minor, yet narcissistic differentiation becomes magnified. Modernity seems to do two things: bring together groups that would not necessarily associate into living situations where they interact and foster a context of sameness/homogeneity. Groups often thrive in separation and in some instances exist because of it—one has only to think of ethnic (Kurds) and religious (Alevies) groups that find themselves persecuted and living in separation from the majority in order to mitigate the more burdensome realities of being the other. Yet in the interdependent reality of the world where the need to live together becomes more apparent, the building of walls, although perhaps the instinctual response, is one that cannot be sustained: social integration means isolation becomes less tenable, but it does not mean difference must be forced to assimilation and sameness. Attempts to eradicate and annihilate difference are invariably met with resistance. Though some government policies in Turkey are aimed at neutralizing the spurious aspects of difference either programmatically or through ignoring the salience of minority claims, the differentiation of a higher “national” identity of Turk is de jure offered to all citizens but de facto less salient to Kurds and Alevies who want to maintain their identity.

The reality is that encountering difference can be abrasive and riddled with inherent friction; and having to endure it can be a threat to the very nature of a national, religious, or individual-constructed identity. Bringing together a diverse group of individuals who, for example, take religion seriously, as a lived category—either as members within their particular faith communities or as self-described secularists cognizant of the foundational contributions of religious traditions to contemporary social order—creates a microcosm of the challenges of living with the other in the broader society. Being placed in a setting outside of their home community, people are often more accommodating and willing to search for common connections on which to build initial relations; this aspect of civility is usually very thin and rarely enough to build a lasting relationship. Yet the search for and attempt to highlight similarities is something that many programs advocating peace through understanding seem to support: that if we know each other well enough and see that religions (and people more generally) have an “essence” that is the same or at least shared, then we can move closer to peaceful coexistence. As people spend more time together and in settings where the foundations of their religious understanding is challenged by the fundamental differences inherent in the cosmological view of someone with whom they presumably share a similar essence, the inescapable nature of difference creates its friction. In other words, the similarities between Muslims and prostitutes, Turks and Kurds, and Alevies and Sunnis are not always enough to assure peaceful coexistence.

Various mediums emerge to overcome difference—such as the nation-state, where nationality is intended to create a regional unity tied to territory and modern notions of state, or economics in a global system, where encounters are narrowed to the exchange of goods rather than the thicker relations of the traditional market imbued with far-reaching social obligations—but the reality is that difference is inevitable and encountered on a regular basis. The significance of difference is evaluated in the very process of othering and the outcome is either difference being eschewed or endured. Recognizing the unavoidable nature of difference leads to an imperative requirement to find ways to live together in difference that move beyond attempts to create sameness or an essence of what can be shared. In reality, the more we know about someone’s religious or political beliefs, the more difficult it can be to call such beliefs “similar” or “similar enough”; often they are threatening. Our best hope for peaceful coexistence is to recognize that otherness permeates all aspects of relations and human interactions, and differences are best endured.

Author Bio

David W. Montgomery is Coordinator of the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life. He is also a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding Initiative at Emory University.

2008 – ISSRPL Occasional Paper No. 1, by Adam B. Seligman

Pedagogic Principles and Reflections Developing out of ISSRPL Practice

Adam B. Seligman

Temples have their sacred images, and we see what influence they have always had over a great part of mankind. But in truth the ideas and images in men’s minds are the invisible powers that constantly govern them, and to these they all, universally, pay a ready submission. It is therefore of the highest concernment that great care should be taken of the understanding, to conduct it aright in the search of knowledge and in the judgments it makes.—John Locke, Of the Conduct of the Understanding

The idea behind pedagogy at the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life (ISSRPL) is that knowledge is embodied. It is no doubt true that there can be no knowledge without some degree of generalization. Abstraction as such is built into the very use of words. Yet, there is also always a loss of certain types or modes of knowledge in this very generalization—even in the use of words. One of the ISSRPL’s aims is to minimize this process of abstraction and to convey certain “bits” of information as purely experiential date. This is why practicums, site visits, and the relocation of the school each year are such important parts of what we do. For ultimately we believe that our knowledge base is a mixture of what can and cannot be abstracted and generalized and even of what can and cannot be translated into language. It is for example just as important, if not more important, to see a member of the group with whom you have been together for two weeks rise up to take communion at Trinity Church in Boston, or some members separate from the group to partake in Muslim prayers in the mosque in Edirne, Turkey, as it is to read a chapter on Christian belief or Islamic worship. The experience serves to locate the act or acts (the prayer of one’s fellows) within a context that is not present in the written text. First, it locates it within the context of one’s own life. The praying Muslim or Jew or Christian is not a general, abstract other, it is Enver or Adam or David who is related to us in all sorts of complicated, contradictory and ultimately ungeneralizable ways. The general (category of praying Muslims or Jews or whatever the case may be) is given a particularity that a written text cannot, by definition (except perhaps in poetry), convey. This particularity gives it a presence, an aura or a “feel” that it would not have in its abstract categorization. Moreover, and because of this embodiment, the analytic place of this information within the body of our knowledge, within the “bits” of information that make up our understood world of Muslims, Jews, Episcopalians, or Catholics is different. The personal connection enhances the analytic framework of the knowledge, not just its affective contours (though to be sure the two are related) but also in a sense that the affective dimension itself adds to the analytic understanding by thickening the framework within which the particular “bit” of information is placed.

Thus, we learn that the categories that we usually use to parse experience and to explain the circumstances of our life are not the only possible or necessary ones. What is written in the books, newspapers, or passed on through our grandmothers’ stories are not the only ways to interpret or explain the world. In fact, a Muslim you see praying one the street might also be a basketball fan (a fact not usually pointed out in the New York Times articles on Islam or in the Italian textbooks). He and I can talk for hours about the Celtics, leading me to realize that my relationship to a Bosnian Muslim can be much more complicated and thick than I have always believed. He and I both relate to basketball, while he very much remains a Muslim and I a Jew. Do note that I am not saying here that we found a commonality, that is not the point (although it may also be the case), rather that we found a nexus of relationship that we would not otherwise have imagined, given the ways generalized knowledge is distilled and presented. The point is that we can come together, engage one another, around the topic of basketball (as we could if we were also, say, engaged in trade or building a cabinet) that is important here; not that we have discovered some point of common reference—some point of reference of self in alter or alter in self (basketball fandom). Although this later understanding is the most commonplace way of framing our shared interest in basketball, I believe it to be mistaken and potentially dangerous for it often leads us to believe that we have now discovered something that we “share” and that we can “scale up” from this shared bit of life to more and more shared attributes, interests, and desiderata. This however is a very risky process, almost certain to break down at the first serious economic downturn, political murder, or divergence of interests. It is useless to abstract a shared moral world from a common interest in basketball. However, if we understand basketball as a, albeit imagined, world where we do something together (exchange statistics of players, knowledge of team records, youthful, or not so youthful passions, etc.), then we begin to see the shared basketball as a space where we do things, rather than as an index of commonality. It is here, I posit, that a new way of living with what is different can be approached.

Creation of such a space forces contestation between it and existing bodies of knowledge, assumptions, cognitive grids and, ultimately collective conceptualizations that we have in our always-already-prepared toolkit of ideas and ways of dealing with reality. It is sometimes the case (though less so as we get older) that reading something forces us to reframe and rethink the sum of our existing conceptions, assumptions, and prejudices. But by and large, our existing body of knowledge is rarely challenged to the core by something we read. If contradictions occur between what we “know” and what we read, we usually find a relatively easy way out of the cognitive dissonance that results—most often by disclaiming or discounting the new bits of information, and it does not appear to be too difficult to do this. It is more difficult to do this with something we have ourselves experienced. The immediacy of the experience sets up a challenge to our already existing “wisdom” that makes life difficult precisely because it has the potential for upsetting our existing assumptions and turning the coherence of our world inside out.

None of this is to denigrate or minimize the importance of abstract and general knowledge. There is, of course, no civilization without general knowledge. But there is also no civilization if all particularities and individual histories, experiences, and insights are reduced to what is most abstract and communicable over distance; that is, to what can be digitalized and transmitted by an electronic file (by written text earlier). Any act of human creativity becomes a balance of the general and the unique, the abstract and the particular, the universalized and the embodied. The trick is to find the balance in whatever the given circumstances are. To a great extent, to too great extent, the knowledge valued and transmitted in the university tends to be only generalized and generalizable, abstract and universal in nature to an almost total disregard of the particular, unique, and singular—which is the experience of every one of us.

Part of this generalized default of the universities and the knowledge base it develops is rooted in the very mission of the universities to transmit knowledge in a manner that is cost effective, in fact, that is profit producing for the universities and which does not impinge on the ruling ideological definitions of personhood, separation of public and private realms, privatization of the good, and so on. One might ask why? For to transmit particular knowledge in particular forms is labor intensive and time consuming and involves a degree of commitment and inter-personal communication, trust, and sacrifice that liberal-individualist mass societies cannot ask of their members. It is much closer to what is communicated in a yeshiva or a madrassa or a monastery, which are dedicated to the reproduction of religious knowledge, indeed of a religious system that defines the most abstract and general in terms of the most personal and unique (God and the individual).

The pedagogic challenge then is to develop something approaching the practice of these religious institutions without the particularistic visions that accrue to them (i.e., their definitions of the sacred, regardless of their denomination). The challenge of the school is in fact, if we can develop an embodied pedagogic practice that is shared by members of different sacred traditions, that is, among those who do not share the fundamental terms of meaning? Perhaps one of the reasons the ISSRPL is so difficult and emotionally exhausting is precisely because of this aspect of its practice.

Where we are now in the development of the ISSRPL pedagogy is far from systematized. We are, in fact, engaged in a sort of ad hoc orchestration and coordination of the different visions rather than any attempt to “summarize,” “integrate,” and hence, generalize. We are in effect working toward some “rules of the road,” toward ways of allowing different terms of meaning and modes of explanation. So we have many particular voices raised, many idiosyncratic frames of knowledge presented and rather than adjudicating among them, we are trying to find a way to have them coexist. As we are dedicated to an enterprise that, by definition, resists systematization and generalization, we are constantly faced with the question of what we put instead. In slightly different terms we can say that the pedagogic problem of the school is: How can different truth claims coexist in a shared public space?

Generalization, of course, tends to reduce the difference. The particularities, which are precisely where the differences are felt, are relegated to the trivial, or lost completely (in some sense they become art and poetry). They are no longer assumed to be part of a shared knowledge base. The shared is precisely what is seen as generalizable. Of course what really happens is that the particular is not “lost,” it simply retreats into the private realm, into the synagogues, mosques, temples, and churches of the world. There, it continues to formulate the terms of meaning, the boundaries of trust and the most intimate grid of explanation for community members who live a “split screen” existence between what is shared in their general—now global—culture, and what is “really” shared, within each particularistic community. Often but not always, these are religious; for example, in the United States, race is a huge definition of particularistic terms of meaning, belonging, and experience, whereas in other countries, ethnicity plays this role; for example, Kurds in Turkey.

Here is where the group dynamics aspect of the ISSRPL begins to play such an important role. For “the group” is an attempt to model a broader society wherein these different particular interpretive grids are heard and are part of the group dynamic without being either generalized, or reduced into the purely individual, and idiosyncratic experience of each individual actor (which is the liberal-individual default that so many of the facilitators fall into without thinking and lose the point of the whole exercise).

In some sense, the real challenge of the school is to see whether we can take individuals from diverse context-rich communities, with different interpretive grids, and share a pedagogic experience without either turning everything into a form of generalized and context-free knowledge (the type we are so good at developing in the university context), or without reducing everything to the purely individual, liberal, and relatively atomistic vision of self and society. So far we seem to manage, albeit with great difficulty, exhaustion, and uncertain results. The task is to try to understand how we do this and perhaps produce a broad set of, admittedly, general rules of the road, for how this could be accomplished. If this is accomplished, we would have made some real progress toward understanding how to live together differently, a task I believe to be the overwhelming challenge of our new global order.

Perhaps the key has to do with explanation. David Hume pointed out that “Explanation is where the mind rests.” Thus, explanation is not the arrival at some ontological truth, or the “real” state of affairs, the final causal or prime mover of whatever event or sequence of events into which we are inquiring. This task is in fact, simply beyond our power as human beings. Rather, we deem a particular conundrum explained, when we cease—for whatever reason—to ask further questions. There is, we may note, something very pragmatist about this claim of David Hume (though 150 years or so avant la lettre). For when does the mind rest? Minds are, after all, very busy creatures always moving, questioning, and querying – people spend a lot of time doing yoga and meditating to get their mind to rest. When, indeed, does the mind rest? Most often it rests when the particular purpose of its questioning has been fulfilled.

For example, I may have a need to explain why the hammer is not in its proper place (because Joey forgot to return it after he made his workbox for shop) so as to be sure that next time it will be in its place (and I make a mental note to tell Joey in no uncertain terms to be sure to return my tools whenever he takes them). I do not need (or think I do not need) to know why Joey forgot to return the hammer (i.e., it is irrelevant for me if it is because his friend Pete called him out to play ball before he had finished cleaning up after he made the workbox or if it was because he came in for a glass of milk and dropped the bottle and slipped on the milk when cleaning it up and had to change his shirt and then his grandmother called, and so on. The endless regress of reasons is irrelevant for my purpose of making sure the hammer is always returned to its place after use. The mind rests when the purpose for which an explanation has been pursued has been met.

What then is the purpose for which we need explanation in much of our interaction with others? To answer this I would like to draw directly on the American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey and his definition of an idea as “not some little psychical entity or piece of consciousness-stuff, but . . . the interpretation of the locally present environment in reference to its absent portion, that part to which it is referred as another part so as to give a view of the whole.”[i] An idea is a mental construct which frames and thus gives meaning (in Dewey’s terms, “interprets”) to a given and empirically present reality in terms of a set of factors not immediately present, but yet, by completing the picture of what is before me, serves to make it meaningful to me. Thus for example, I do not know what that guy from Bosnia is doing on the floor everyday at about 1:15, in the afternoon, but when I put it together with ideas I have about Muslim prayer (5 times a day, involving the salat) I can reach the conclusion that he is praying. What I am suggesting is that the explanation at which the mind rests, is in fact Dewey’s definition of idea. When we have an idea of something it generally means that we have explained it to our satisfaction. Our satisfaction is, in turn, determined by our ability to frame the given reality facing us (the guy from Bosnia on his knees) with sufficient supplementary information for us to know what to do (act respectfully toward him, or run to help him as perhaps he is suffering from internal bleeding in his stomach, or wait for further help to arrive . . . or as was actually enacted in a most macabre fashion in at least one U.S. airport, call the police, because it was feared as a prelude to a suicide bombing).

Explanation rests with an idea that we form of something; this idea is, according to Dewey, an amalgam of the currently available, physical reality before us together with additional, interpretive data that frames this reality in a broader, meaning giving context, defined by our specific purposes. Now there are certain types of action, particular tasks or sets of tasks such as studying for an examination, building a carburetor, preparing dinner, purchasing garden mulch, performing open-heart surgery, bidding on a stock option, ordering food in a restaurant, and so on, when it is relatively simple to see this process of explanation and idea formation at work. They are not our concern here. We are interested in a much more difficult task—to get at a set of ideas; those revolving around the self, the Other, and how to share social space with people who are very different from us and with whom we do not agree on what is most important to whom and what we are.

At its most successful, what the summer school allows us to recognize is that our ideas of these matters are very much what the French founder of sociology termed, “collective representations.” They are often not purely personal, idiosyncratic, and individual notions; rather, many of our ideas of our selves (or rather of the social part of our selves—and of the other—the part that is a Jew or a Muslim, a man or a woman, etc.) are manifestations of a collective conscience. They are collective ideas. In other words, in these matters (of our attitudes toward Jews or Christians or whites or blacks) the place at which the mind rests, is a collective place. As such, the purposes that they serve are collective ones as well.

Furthermore, these purposes are often not oriented toward opening ourselves, including our group selves, to alternative and sometimes challenging and conflicting definitions or understandings. Conversely, they are often geared to maintaining group boundaries, solidarity, and the sense of self and of self-righteousness. After all, the sense of who we are and why we are is very much a part of what makes up our collective representations and so our definitions of the situation—our ideas and explanations of any given event. These then come to constitute a grid, which we impose on experience. Explanation in fact, is not the beginning of experience, it is very much its end, it is the place where already-before-the-event, I know where I will locate it. One of the reasons that the summer school is so grueling is because we take  apart these collective assumptions (of each of us) and agree to submit ourselves to working out a common mode of knowledge, interaction, and understanding with no such collective, a priori set of explanations predicated on the collective consciousness of each.

In essence then, what we do is eschew any final explanation; we agree to set apart broad, inclusive, and generalized explanations (and hence, à la Dewey, ideas). And although none of us questions our own belonging to such meaning-giving communities (which could be Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or secular-humanist) we are forced, by the environment of our shared time together, to eschew the types of explanations and ideas, precisely those interpretive frames to experience, that these would (and in other environments often do) provide to what we encounter together in these two weeks.

Agreeing to submit ourselves to this hiatus in explanation is no mean feat. It is extremely difficult and exhausting an exercise. It is, moreover, not something agreed on or formally declared before the start of our time together. In fact, the only “rule” we invoke is that we act “as if” no group, including our own has the monopoly on human suffering (this is true whether we are Jews, Palestinians, women, blacks, Armenians, or Kurds). This formal rule, which required no inner or sincere “assent,” is meant as no more than a traffic regulation to make continued interaction possible. However, the very need to adhere to this rule (whatever one feels inside) often (not always and not always consciously) has the consequence of forcing us to delay final judgment on events, people, and situations we encounter during the time together. In short, it forces reflection, what Dewey termed “reflective thinking.” Adhering to this rule (and it needs to be said that we do not always manage to do so, certainly not all the time), then contributes to a feeling of suspense, to our understanding of the situation as incomplete, doubtful and problematic. We admit lack of full knowledge, without yet accepting that we live in total ignorance and by blurring any absolute distinction between the two states we set up the possibility of “forming conjectures to guide action;” the very process that Dewey in fact described as the foundation of scientific thought.

I want to highlight the difficult nature of this endeavor, a difficulty which, in its general contours, was already discussed by Dewey. To quote him at some length, “Reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves the willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance. Reflective thinking, in short, means judgment suspended during further inquiry, and suspense is likely to be somewhat painful. . . . To maintain a state of doubt and to carry on a systematic and protracted inquiry—these are the essentials of thinking.”[ii] This thinking through experience, suspending judgment even as one forms new conjectures leading us to new forms of action, is at the heart of the school’s work. We attempt this in only one very particular realm: that of our interactions with people we understand as different; that is, as sharing different terms of meaning, participate in different truth-communities, and who generalize trust and sense of belonging in very different ways. Not surprisingly it is precisely around these differences in religious belonging (between Christians and Muslims or Orthodox and Reform Jews) that the school orients its shared practice.

To refer back to the earlier quote by John Dewey, what we seek to arrive at through this suspension of judgment is that the “absent portion” of the “present environment” is no longer defined by the collective representations that each of us bring to the encounter. Or perhaps, more properly, when these representations are made public they are most often challenged and thus showed to have much more to do with the reality of the group making the interpretation (Muslims of Jews, Christians of Muslims, Orthodox Jews of secular Jews, etc.) than to any “objective” or “empirical” reality that is “out there”.[iii] This is the value gained by the suspension of judgment.

The understanding of this process is slow, cumulative, and not always conscious. What it necessitates is the experience of straddling boundaries. The individual retains his or her membership and terms of meaning as provided within their truth-communities, but comes to recognize the only partial, fragile, mutable, and heavily freighted nature of the interpretive frames that these memberships provide to events in the world; to realize, in fact, just how much these interpretive frames are marked by Bacon’s idols of the tribe, marketplace, cave or theatre.

What this makes possible is a redefinition of the purposes toward which explanation is oriented. The mind then, we can say, comes to rest in a different place. Distancing our collective representations of who we are and our own commitments to our own traditions from the process of idea formations and explanation in the particular and specific contexts of the school, allows us to redefine those purposes toward which explanation is oriented. These are no longer defined by the collective purposes of each participant’s own “in-group.”

We thus begin to localize our ideas and circumscribe our explanations toward what is most or more immediate without engaging our own particular collective philosophy of history, man, God, and existence. We learn to live, if not without the latter, at least without the latter forming the ground of each and every decision involving the other. By distancing these grand or meta interpretive grids from every environment in need of an explanation, we create a space where alternative and competing practices among members of differing and even mutually exclusive interpretive communities can construct a common life (even while remaining mutually exclusive in their truth-claims and all that follows from such). We learn to act (according to our newly formed conjectures and judgments) rather than react (according to our received prejudices and cognitive grids).

A concrete example is perhaps in order here. In the Jewish tradition, one of the fundamental principles regulating relations with gentiles is known as darchei shalom, the ways of peace. This is interpreted to mean that we must fulfill obligations of neighborliness with our gentile neighbors even if not explicitly commanded to; indeed, even when the written law absolves us of the obligation to treat the gentile neighbor in the same manner that we treat our Jewish brother. Most contemporary understandings of the darchei shalom principle interpret this behavior as purely prudential:: we act in such a way so the gentiles will have no reason to complain at Jewish behavior. However without such a concern there would be no need, for example to return lost property to a gentile. Such is the usual, “on the street” understanding of this term that one would find in many orthodox and ultra-orthodox synagogues. Yet, the fact remains that there is a great debate around the concept of darchei shalom and of the purely prudential understanding of its force. This debate goes back to the time of the Talmud (ca. 6 century CE). In fact, the Jewish tradition itself, from the Babylonian Talmud to more contemporary Halachic decisors, all recognize the problem with this very limited understanding of darchei shalom and thus offer a much thicker, richer, and value-laden interpretation of its obligatory nature. The point is, that one can find in the tradition, what one wishes to find and one’s scholarship will develop accordingly. Moreover, one may well be so under the sway of the idols of tribe or the cave, as to blind oneself to the richness of possible interpretations and understandings that the tradition permits, or even encourages.[iv] This is extremely relevant because often people standing with a tradition—be it Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, or Protestant—claim to be obligated by their acceptance of transcendent dictates and revealed texts and that it is these obligations rather than any prejudice, failure of judgment, idols of tribe, marketplace cave, or grandmothers, which direct their behavior. What we are suggesting is that this is often not the case and one can very well accept and live comfortably within a heteronomously ordered tradition and still be open to experience and hence thought. Needless to say this is encompassed in the very meaning of halacha, or sha’aria—and was also the original meaning of the Christian religion—both of which mean way or path. For if all were finished, complete, and wholly assured no way would be called for, only a binary and in the nature of the case, finalizing decision, that would make all that followed meaningless.

This brings us to what I like to call the idea of embodied knowledge; that is, knowledge focused on particularities and hence what is, in essence, experience. Experience, as Dewey has taught us, is the central component in thinking. According to Dewey, “To learn from experience is to make a backward and forward connection between what we do to things and what we enjoy and suffer from things in consequence. Under such conditions, doing becomes a trying; an experiment with the world to find out what it is like.”[v] In this process, the intellect cannot be separated from experience and the attempt to do so leaves us with disembodied, abstract knowledge that all too often emphasizes “things” rather than the “relations or connections” between them.[vi] In so doing it is of precious little help in our attempt to connect the multitude of disconnected data that the world presents into a framework of meaning. Meaning, as is clear to all, rests not on the knowledge of “things” but on the relations between them. These relations, in turn, as Dewey so brilliantly argues, can only be assessed through experience because only through experience do we bring the relevant relations between things into any sensible sort of juxtaposition. Hence, the relevant relations between fabric, wood, staples, hammer, stain-pot, and brush are only made relevant in the construction of the chair. Without the experience of chair making, the relations between the components—even the definition of the component elements—is open to endless interpretation. Thus, meaning—emergent from experience can only be supplied by the goals toward which we aspire; as indeed, experience, as opposed to our simple passive subjugation to an event, is always in pursuit of a practical aim.

How then, one might ask, are these insights into the nature of experience and of thinking relevant to the practice and mission of the school? Having “bracketed out” or suspended our received impressions (of an abstract—and all too often, collective—nature) in the search of new judgments based on experience of a particular and embodied nature (the Muslim guy who likes basketball or the Jews who argue among themselves) can we say anything about this experience (of the school) that leads us to new types of judgments and conjectures? Can these new ideas (or even the process of arriving at them) in turn be formalized in any way and used as tools for further experiments in judgment formation outside of the school, and thus carried forward into other organizational settings and institutional arenas?

Perhaps the best way to answer these questions is to define the “backward and forward” motion that is achieved in the school. I consider the backward motion to be our existing preconceptions and uncritical knowledge base—often of a generalized nature, not tested by any real experience, only the received knowledge of the tribe, cave, market place, and so on. The forward motion is our continued process of conjecturing and idea-formation—now to be informed by the particular experiences of the school and not solely by the “received wisdom” of our respective communities (including, I must add, the community of liberal individualism, which, to no small extent, extends to that of the Western universities).

From this it becomes clear that the “thing” that we are acting upon and which in turn is acting upon us is not a block of wood or a screwdriver, nor the deciphering of a text or of a problem in geometry; but rather the “thing” is our ideas of ourselves in relation to people who are different from us. A small matter it would seem, when put so simply. Yet it goes to the core of our existence, both as individual egos and as members of collectivities. Whether we turn to the problems of ego’s differentiation from mother or of collectivity’s struggles to maintain their existence over time, the problem of self and world (which is the problem of the self and the non-self, or of self and what is different from self) is, in fact, one of the defining problems of existence.

The individual/psychological aspect is relevant here; for what we have learned from D.W. Winnicott, Marion Milner, and other object-relation theorists is how important it is to have the capacity to, at times, posit the relations between self and world with a certain degree of “fuzziness” or indeterminacy. Winnicott’s work on the “transitional object”—the object (e.g., child’s teddy or blanket) whose origins is never questioned, which thus remains curiously undefined and which in turn allows the ego (self) to differentiate from mother and so to actually perceive the existence of mother as a separate entity is a case in point. It is not coincidental, that when Marion Milner comes to discuss the very ability of ego to perceive the other as external object she repeatedly comes back to the loss of ego boundaries—that is of boundaries between ego and object as one necessary stage in the development of such apperception. The very “confounding of one thing with another, this not discriminating, is also the basis of generalization,” the basis—as she goes on to quote Wordsworth—of the poet’s ability to find “the familiar in the unfamiliar.”[vii] Generalization, which is a necessary component of empathy, itself rests, as pointed out by Ernst Jones, on a prior failure to discriminate, a prior tendency to note identity in differences.[viii] Again, boundaries blurred and reconstituted. Moreover, the ability, says Milner “to find the familiar in the unfamiliar, require[s] an ability to tolerate a temporary loss of sense of self, a temporary giving up of the discriminating ego which stands apart and tries to see things objectively and rationally.”[ix]

I would suggest that the “temporary giving up of the discriminating ego” is on a par with what Dewey was referring to when he discussed the painful process of suspending judgment and living in the suspense that results. By suspending judgment, I am, after all, suspending one of the prime activities of the “discriminating ego.” Holding judgment in abeyance, I am in effect reigning in the ego’s will to dominate through explanation the given situation. There are to be sure situations, such as erotic attachments, where the pain of this suspended judgment is mitigated or replaced with pleasure; what we must learn to do more consciously is to suspend judgment even when the immediate benefits do not seem to outweigh the loss.[x] This is one important pedagogic role of the school. The critical analytic point to make is that fuzziness of boundaries is a result of suspended judgment. Labile boundaries—boundaries that exist, but are not absolute—are a function of suspended judgment. One recognizes that judgment must play a role in organizing our relation to the world and in structuring our activities (hence the positing of boundaries) but, at the same time, one temporarily suspends judgment (thus blurring the boundaries) about certain aspects of the relation between self and world.

This, what we may term, “boundarywork” comes to play a not insignificant role in the education toward empathy, resting as it does on a decentred self, and on an ability to generalize out, beyond one’s own experiences. For such to take place, boundaries must in some sense be fuzzy and less than strict and fully discriminate, even when judgment is, in many cases, suspended.

This long aside into individual psychological traits is important as it helps to clarify for us another and critical dimension of the Deweian insight regarding suspended judgment: such suspended judgment reorients us toward our own boundaries (essentially those between self and non-self, whether on the individual or collective level) and brings a certain fuzziness to bear on our relation to these boundaries—a fuzziness where empathy, tolerance, and a new attitude toward the non-self can be developed.

One critical component of this process, especially in our own attempts to understand its working along collective lines is the role of symbols. Symbols act as mediums, intervening substances (transitional objects) that, in blurring boundaries between ego and object, make possible to eventually perceive objects outside of ego. Symbols, as transitional objects, are the critical link that allows us to perceive Other, through a process of not quite incorporating Other within our internal space. They allow both the blurring of boundaries and their reconstitution, analogous to what Winnicott claimed for the transitional object and, indeed, for all acts of creative play. In the context of the problematique of the summer school, the symbols referred to are not crosses, flags, or six pointed stars, but they are the very ideas we form that place “where the mind rests,” in our regard of the Other. Although not reducible to an image, they nevertheless provide a code or grid, framing both ourselves and alter in a web of significance and meaning. In Deweian terms, we are thus referring to those ideas, which provide the supplementary information we need to make sense (i.e., explain) our meeting with the Other.

Symbol systems thus function as mediating structures, transitional objects that mediate the relation between self and world (essentially the role of culture). But, if we return to our example of the Jewish laws of relations with gentiles discussed above, we see that these systems are themselves open to endless interpretation and divergent understandings, their own boundaries are fluid, to be determined by the conjectures, judgments, and goals that define the situation within which they are invoked. Yes, they may well mediate our relation with the world, but let us not confuse that with defining either us or the world. Holding such definitions in abeyance (a process which demands the suspension of judgment, the mental pain of such suspension, and the blurring of boundaries) allows a malleability in our approach to these cultural (and hence by definition, collective) systems that, in turn, permits –a thinking through of our relations to the Other, which is not otherwise possible. New conjectures, new judgments, a new experience of thinking is now possible, as the experience of difference is disembodied from existing judgments, conjectures, and “idols.”

If we follow the logic of the preceding argument, empathy and the tolerance of difference must, if they are to be long lasting and constitutive of our practice, rest on the very type of duality between boundaries and their dissolution and for which certain types of iterated activity may provide an important propaedeutic. They must, we are claiming, arise as conjectures born from experience, rather than as a particular ideological position, or a priori interpretive framework such as one stemming from the received wisdom of liberal-individualist precepts, for example. In a word, they must be born of experience, rather than ideology. John Dewey has claimed that “ideas are not genuine ideas unless they are tools in a reflective examination which tends to solve a problem.”[xi] Characteristic of such ideas are “a willingness to hold final selection in suspense [as well as] alertness, flexibility, curiosity.” In contrast, “dogmatism, rigidity, prejudice, caprice, arising from routine, passion and flippancy are fatal”.[xii]

The school attempts to provide a framework where the framing of such ideas (as opposed to ideological positions, (however “benign”) can take place. We do this through a particular approach to the perennial challenges of collective action. These challenges, (i.e., problems that all human collectivities must solve) include: (1) the organization of the division of labor; (2) the generalization of trust beyond (and for that matter within) primal units; and (3) the provision of meaning. The summer school creates an environment where one of these components of social order is understood as shared, one is understood as not shared at all, and the challenge, within these conditions, is to generate the third. To put it more explicitly: the “division of labor” is shared. It can be understood as all of the collective activities that we do together (and we do almost everything together). These include lectures, preparation for lectures, trips, visiting different houses of worship, practicums, meals, providing for the religious needs of different communal members (Jews, Muslims, Christians, including not only prayer service and times, but also special meals), organizing time together, and coordinating different needs.

The “provision of meaning” is understood as the very different religious and sacred commitments of the group members, which may prevent them from eating the same food as other members, traveling on the same days, or interpreting events, actions, and beliefs in the same way. Mention should be made that in such situations as the ISSRPL, the default of group participants is always to hide or deemphasize what is different and highlight what is shared among them. This is understandable and to an extent necessary. However, if the group does not progress beyond this stage of “how we are the same,” little is gained from the experience. After all, if we are the same, why leave home and come to the school? It is therefore a very tricky challenge for the organizers and staff to slowly move the group to accept their differences and recognize that they can still be a group despite their differences.

Finally, the “generalization of trust,” or, given the extremely limited circumstances, the generalization of some rules to allow an experience held in common (or, in the Deweian sense, of shared experience) is the challenge of the school. I think that every year this is up for grabs and its success is nowhere assured. Every year the extent to which this is achieved and the extent to which this is achieved in relation to the willingness to recognize real, constitutive difference is somewhat different—but this is the real lesson of the school. The extent to which this is accomplished (and we see that it can be accomplished) is the success of the school and its unique pedagogy.

The long-term success of the school will be measured (with time) in terms of its ability to bring a certain (even small) percentage of the fellows to duplicate this analytic exercise (not necessary the content or form) in their host countries and in programs that they are already working on (whether in the field of education, law, religious/community development, etc.). We are perhaps a long way from knowing how to do this, but the 2008 school in Birmingham, UK which will put in place local (in-site) structures to further these aims indicates a very good start in this direction.

Author Bio

Adam B. Seligman is Director of the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life. He is also Professor in the Department of Religion and Research Associate at the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs, at Boston University.


[i] Dewey, John. 1916. The Control of Ideas by Facts. In Essays in Experimental Logic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 239.

[ii] Dewey, John. 1997 [1910]. How We Think. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. p.13.

[iii] This is why it is so important for the participants to have a modicum of trust among themselves, to grant one another some “moral credit.” This takes the form of sharing their beliefs and assumptions about the other, as well as on present conditions in a manner in which “outsiders” can witness the debates and conflicts among “insiders” (Muslims witnessing acrimonious debates between observant and less observant Jews, Jews and Christians witnessing debates between those who claim to be Muslims and those who refuse to admit a certain group to the Muslim fold).

[iv] Note that the tribe at any given moment is not coterminous with the tradition.

[v] Dewey, John. 2004 [1916]. Democracy and Education. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. p. 134.

[vi] Dewey, Democracy and Education, p. 137.

[vii] Milner, Marion. 1952. Aspects of Symbolism in Comprehension of the Not-Self. International Journal of Psychoanalysis 33: 181-95. p. 182.

[viii] Jones, Ernest. 1948 [1916]. Theory of Symbolism. In Papers on Psychoanalysis. London: Maresfield Reprints.

[ix] Milner, Acts of Symbolism in Comprehension of the Not-Self, p. 279.

[x] We may add here that the key feature of tolerance is precisely the suspension of judgment. When one tolerates what one finds distasteful or wrong one in effect suspends a final judgment on such acts rather than accepts them as right or beneficial (in which case tolerance would not be necessary).

[xi] Dewey, How We Think, p. 109.

[xii] Dewey, How We Think, p. 105–6.